Fontana + The GothicNew York
Barnaba da Modena
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1375
LiteratureG. Romano, 'Laura Malvano e Barnaba da Modena', Cahiers d’études italienne, 18, 2014, p. 102.
Standing on a green marble floor with her monumental figure framed by a Gothic arch, Saint Catherine of Alexandria is dressed in a rose robe and blue tunic. She wears a crown on her head, denoting her status as both a princess and a scholar. In her right hand, she grasps a martyr’s palm, and in the left, she holds a small wheel, the symbol of the pagan Emperor Maxentius’s sentence to have her tortured to death on a spiked wheel; instead, the instrument collapsed and the Emperor then ordered her beheading.
Attributed by Daniele Benati (oral communication, 2014) and Andrea de Marchi (oral communication, 2014) to Barnaba da Modena, the present work is a particularly fine example of the artist’s oeuvre. The panel was likely a part of a large polyptych that was later dismembered. Born in Modena, Barnaba began his career in Bologna and, from 1361, was mostly active in and around Pisa and Genoa. His style is characterised by a certain taste for the neo-Byzantine style as well as a strong penchant for the pictorial traditions of Siena. The slightly archaic elements of the present work—the heavy shading of the saint’s face, the strict rendering of her figure, the striations on her mantle—seem to be derived directly from Byzantine art. These features account for Barnaba’s success in Genoa, where Byzantine painting had long been favoured.
Yet, in this Saint Catherine, the predominant influence is Tuscan, with the artist showing a deliberate taste for the elegant and refined Sienese idiom. Though there is not enough evidence to prove that Barnaba ever went to Siena, the artist clearly came into contact with the iconographical formula pioneered by Simone Martini, while also being deeply influenced by contemporary Sienese masters such as Luca di Tommè, Paolo di Giovanni Fei and Niccolò di Buonaccorso. Barnaba most certainly encountered works by Sienese artists while in Pisa, such as the large polyptych painted in 1319 by Simone Martini for the church of Santa Caterina in Pisa, now in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo. That the artist met Luca di Tommè, who was documented in Pisa in 1363. is also conceivable. Following the tradition established by Simone Martini, Barnaba effectively assimilated the decorative line of the Gothic style as well as its mastery of volume. He also managed to grasp Simone Martini’s sensitivity to colour, lending a certain lyricism and serenity to his works. The present panel echoes, for example, Simone Martini’s Saints Mary Magdalene and Catherine of Alexandria in the Lower Church at Assisi (1312–17), in which the latter saint is presented with an analogous form and pose to the figure here.
As such, the present panel confirms the links between Barnaba and the Sienese artistic environment. His evident mastery of this style, from the sophisticated decorative elements and rich colouring to the confident understanding of volume and space, place the panel during the maturity of the artist; a date around 1375, around the same time that the artist was working on the signed polyptych of 1374 now in the National Gallery in London, thus seems appropriate for this panel.
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