Relics & Reliquaries

Reliquary with Madonna and Child with Saints

The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Reliquary with Madonna and Child with Saints

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This triptych is both a painting and a reliquary; it once contained relics in the circular holes of the central section. St. Aurea and John the Baptist flank the central image of the enthroned Madonna and Child. The Annunciation is painted on the top portion of the wings, where Gabriel holds a scroll with the words from the antiphon sung at the Feast of the Annunciation. In 1358 Lippo Vanni painted a monumental triptych for the female Dominican community of St. Aurea (now in the Church of SS. Domenico and Sisto) in Rome that featured Aurea, a Christian virgin martyred at Ostia in the third century, as the primary saint. It is possible that the owners of this triptych, whose coat of arms are visible but no longer identifiable at the feet of St. Dominic and an apostle on the left and right wings, were affiliated in some way with the community that commissioned the Roman triptych. The production of small devotional panels surrounded by relic chambers began to flourish in Siena in the second half of the fourteenth century. This phenomenon may be ascribed to the widespread circulation of relics and the desire to adapt monumental retables in smaller size for private devotion. The development of gold-ground painting techniques allowed painters to reproduce the preciousness of metalwork. In this painting, the gold is tooled and punched, while some of the decoration is in sgraffito. The different treatments allowed the gold background to react differently to light, creating a sense of depth and movement. Lippo Vanni was a Sienese painter much influenced by the art of the Lorenzetti brothers (Pietro and Ambrogio) and that of Simone Martini. His gentle and elegant figure style was particularly well suited to this category of precious object.

Martina Bagnoli