THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
His posthumous sale, Vienna, Wawra and Glückselig, 22–24 October 1929, lot 455 (as Saint Syrus of Pavia);
Julius Henckel-Haas (1869–1931), Detroit, Michigan;
By inheritance to his wife Lilian Henckel-Haas (1879–1960), Detroit, Michigan;
Thomas Sheridan Hyland (1917–91), Greenwich, Connecticut;
By whom sold, London, Christie’s, 23 June 1967, lot 69, for £13,500 to 'Robson';
With Agnew's, London;
From whom acquired and thence by family descent.
Waltham, Mass., Brandeis University, Major Masters of the Renaissance, 1963, no. 1;
Kings Lynn, Fermoy Art Gallery, A Collection of the Ninteen-Sixties, 22 July – 5 August 1972, no. 1.
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, London 1968, vol. I, p. 375;
G. Agnew and E. Joll, A Collection of the Nineteen-Sixties, exh. cat., Fermoy Art Gallery, Kings Lynn, 1972, p. 5, reproduced.
The episode depicted here by Sano is described most fully in the life of Saint Donatus included by Jacobus da Voragine in his Golden Legend, written around 1260:
‘Near Arezzo there was a poisoned spring, and anyone who drank thereof died immediately. And when Saint Donatus rode upon his donkey to the spring in order to purify the waters by his prayers, a terrible dragon rushed forth, twisted his tail about the donkey's legs, and reared up against Donatus. But the saint struck him with a whip, or, as others have it, spat in his face, and killed him in a trice. Then he besought the Lord, and the waters of the spring were purified forthwith.’1
According to the Passio of his life written by the later Bishop Severinus of Arezzo, Donatus was a Roman nobleman by birth who converted to Christianity, but during the persecution of the Christians under the Emperor Julian 'the Apostate’, his parents were put to death and he was forced to flee to Arezzo, where he became Bishop and wrought many miracles. According to tradition, together with the monk Saint Hilary, his defiance of the prefect Quadracianus led to his execution on 7 August 362 AD.
An illuminator of manuscripts as well as a painter, Sano enrolled in the Siena painters’ Guild in 1428. His earliest signed work, the great Gesuati polyptych in the Pinacoteca at Siena, is dated as late as 1444, and any earlier phase of his career remains conjectural. It is likely that he was trained in the workshop of Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta (1392–1450/1), and some scholars have identified the youthful phase of his work with that of the so-called Master of Osservanza, a painter working in a style very similar, responsible for an altarpiece of 1436 in the church of the Osservanza in Siena. It is possible that the two painters represent a single artistic personality, but more likely that their works were the product of a collaborative workshop to which they both belonged. Sano’s style remained to the end embedded in the habits and tastes of the early Renaissance in Siena. His increasing reliance onmembers of his workshop diluted much of his later work to conventional formulae, but his work as an illuminator remained consistently of the highest quality right up to his death. His obituary in the church of San Domenico, where he was buried, records him as 'pictor famosius et homo totus deditus Deo' (a famous painter and completely dedicated to God).
Neither the predella to which the present panel belonged, nor the larger altarpiece of which that formed part, has yet been identified. Only one other panel, which depicts the martyrdom of what is evidently the same bishop saint, formerly in the collection of James Jackson Jarves in Florence and now in the Yale University collection, New Haven (fig. 1), can so far be linked to the present work. Both panels are of similar size (that at Yale measures 21.6 x 39.4 cm.) and share the same distinctive punched border along both their upper and lower edges. Formerly attributed to Giovanni di Paolo, the Yale panel was first tentatively associated with Sano and his workshop by Oswald Sirén in 1916, an attribution which has remained to this day.2 Berenson, who knew both paintings, did not notice their connection, and retained the traditional attribution of the Yale panel and the identification of the saint as Syrus of Pavia.3 Both panels presumably formed part of the predella to an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Donatus, perhaps commissioned by a patron from Sano’s own parish of San Donatus in Siena, or else for a patron or church in the nearby city of Arezzo, where Donatus was once bishop and now patron saint. Sano returned to the subject of Donatus and the dragon in the predella of his polyptych of 1471 formerly at the Abbadia di San Salvatore in Badia e Isola, and now at the Museo Civico e d’Arte Sacra, Colle di Val d’Elsa.4 Here the design of the panel follows the same lines as the present picture, but with the addition of two standing figures to the right of the saint. Owing to the homogeneity of much of his later output it is difficult to suggest a chronology for Sano’s work, but on the basis of photographs Keith Christiansen has kindly suggested a possible dating to around 1460 for the present panel. He believes it to be a companion to the Yale panel, also typical of the painter. Dr Laurence Kanter has also kindly fully endorsed the attribution to Sano on the basis of photographs.
1 The Golden Legend, translated by W.G. Ryan, Princeton 1993, p. 60.
2 Inv. no. 1871.62. O. Sirén, A Descriptive Catalogue of the pictures in the Jarves Collection, belonging to Yale University, New Haven, London, Oxford 1916, pp. 159–60, no. 62.
3 See C. Seymour, Early Italian Paintings in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven and London 1970, pp. 204–05, cat. no. 154, reproduced (as workshop of Sano) and Berenson 1968, vol. I, p. 178. Saint Syrus of Pavia is often shown trampling on a basilisk or dragon, symbolic of his defeat of Arianism.
4 Berenson 1968, vol. II, reproduced pl. 588.
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