Four small scenes in sparkling colours and bathing in gold. These little masterpieces by Simone Martini are like jewels. They once formed part of an altarpiece with the Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross as the central panels. The interior wings also had images of Christ Carrying the Cross and the Entombment, which sparkle today in the Louvre in Paris and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. When the altarpiece was closed, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary could be seen on the backs of the shutters. Together, they form a single scene: the Annunciation.
Martini used contrasts to achieve his effect, as we can clearly see in the central panels. The painter crammed the picture plane with figures. Christ alone is allowed some space to breathe, emphasizing his isolation. Each character displays the most intense emotions and expressions through their hands, faces and poses. The pain on Jesus’ face. The tiny, butterfly-like angels on either side of him. A fiery-red Mary Magdalene clinging to the wood of the cross. The soldier reluctantly thrusting his lance. Christ’s mother collapsing in grief. And the two boys in the foreground looking on, full of pity. Every detail in Martini has its meaning.
Profusion of gold
The panels also stand out for the precious materials with which they were executed. Gold, for instance. A profusion of it. The scenes bathe in a golden glow. The haloes of the main figures also consist of the most refined gold filigree. And the patterns in their clothing are gold too. All the same, Martini does not allow them to get lost in all the gleam and glitter. He has painted them in vivid colours so that they stand out pin-sharp against the precious metal. There is no scenery here, no background. No frame of reference at all. The action plays out as if in a dream.
In the scene with the Descent from the Cross, we see a man kneeling in prayer and mourning. This is Cardinal Napoleone Orsini, a Franciscan monk and a diplomat in the service of Popes Clement V and John XXII in Avignon. Martini painted the altar for him in 1333, which is why it bears his name. It is not certain whether the work was completed in Rome or Avignon. Martini certainly accompanied Orsini to the French city, where he also painted frescoes for the Pope. He befriended the early Humanist Petrarch too, who immortalized him in two sonnets and a letter. Martini lived and worked in Avignon until his death in 1344. His polyptych and frescoes inspired a new school of painting, the Avignon School.
Martini was born around 1284 in the Tuscan city of Siena, where he became the leading master of the Sienese school. His art was not particularly innovative – his importance mainly lies in the way he brought the Late-Gothic style to its ultimate perfection. He showed immense refinement in his use of colour and design and made his figures less linear, giving them volume and with it, as it were, a soul. Martini offered a first glimpse of a new trend, the Renaissance, which would focus more on human beings as individuals and less as symbols.
From Avignon to Antwerp
Chevalier Florent van Ertborn, a former mayor of Antwerp, purchased the Orsini Polyptych in 1826 from the Chartreuse de Champmol in Dijon. Following his death in 1841, he left it to the museum in Antwerp, along with masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling, Jean Fouquet’s Madonna and more besides. When the new museum building opened in 1890, the polyptych found its way into the KMSKA collection.