Attributed to Bonifacio Bembo
c.1444-1477 | Italy
Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian
Tempera on panel
These exceptionally rare early Renaissance panels of Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian are an extraordinary new discovery. It is believed, thanks to the research of art historians Marco Tanzi and Andrea de Marchi, that these represent the missing panels from the famed polyptych that was formerly displayed on the altar of the Chapel of San Nicola da Tolentino in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Cremona, Italy. To find two matching early Renaissance panels outside of a museum or church, particularly in such remarkable condition, is an extraordinary rarity.
The central and left-sided panels of the original five-part polyptych are currently in the collection of the Museo Civico Ala Ponzone in Cremona. These panels have luckily remained intact, and respectively portray the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels and Donor, Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (the chapel’s namesake) and Saint George.
While the present panels have since been reduced, that they belong to the Cremonese altarpiece is confirmed by a number of stylistic elements. All five panels contain the same rich decorative arabesque pattern on their stamped gold background, while the figures’ knurled haloes are identical in both their fineness of line and use of perspective. The proportions of the figures coincide perfectly; Saints Cosmas and Damian would have originally also been depicted as full-length figures, fitting into the vertical, Gothic style of the altarpiece.
According to the Christian religion, Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian were 3rd century physicians born in Arabia. Little is known about their lives except that they were reputedly twin brothers and that they were martyred in Syria during the persecution of Emperor Diocletian. It was believed that the saints were skilled in healing, and when their medicines failed, their faith and prayers could always perform miracles. Thus, the saints are often depicted with their medical equipment while wearing the traditional medieval doctor’s garb of crimson robes and distinctive round red hats.
The saints are similarly depicted in the present panels, though considering the manner in which they have been cut, their medical tools are not immediately evident. The saints were highly popular as patrons of wealthy families during the Gothic and Renaissance eras, particularly the Medici, and thus they occur frequently in art from the era. The twins, for instance, are found in the famed San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico in the San Marco Museum (Florence), as well as in a set of Medici panels crafted by Filippo Lippi currently in the collection of the National Gallery (London).
These present panels, along with the remainder of the Cremonese altarpiece, has been attributed to the Northern Italian Renaissance painter Bonifacio Bembo. Active in Cremona throughout the 15th century, he would have been a natural choice for the construction of the altarpiece, which was to be part of a new chapel dedicated to San Nicola da Tolentina in the church of Sant'Agostino in Cremona. The Cavalcabò chapel, which is also in the Sant'Agostino, is similarly attributed to him. Several other of his works can be found in museums and churches throughout Italy and beyond, including the Pinacoteca di Brera (Milan), Denver Museum of Art, and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Paris), among others.
Panel: 14 7/8” high x 11 3/4” wide
Frame: 15 1/2” high x 12 3/8” wide