Some comments on the iconography of the Strozzi Altarpiece

While digging up  a painting for my last post on Trecento painting, I noticed some interesting peculiarities in the iconography of  Orcagna’s Strozzi Altarpiece. Since these peculiarities are apparently well-noted by scholars, it seems germane to offer a few notes.

In the interest of clearing up certain immediate questions, the flanking figures are indentifable as SS. (from left to right) Michael, Catherine, Mary, John the Baptist, Lawrence, and Paul. These do not really demand much comment, as they were probably picked based on connections to the patron(excepting John The Baptist and Mary, who we will get to). Catherine, Lawrence, and Paul in paticular tend to recur quite a bit in 14th century work. The two most striking elements of the iconography are the Mary-Jesus-John group(called a Deesis; the most famous one is a mosaic in Hagia Sophia) and the handing of the keys and the book to Thomas Aquinas and Peter, respectively. The Deesis group is somewhat noteworht because it’s a fairly archaic motif that tends to be more Byzantine than Western. Most scholars would consider this motif symptomatic of the conservative trend in mid-14th Century painting*, but even here it’s a little startling that this was chosen.

The other notable element of the Iconography is Jesus handing a book to Thomas Aquinas and keys to Peter. Now the key is the main attribute of Peter in Italian Gothic art(and I think Byzantine art), on the logic that he holds the keys to heaven and hell, and to place him and Thomas Aquinas on the same level and in the same relation to Jesus implies that the work of Thomas Aquinas is as necessary and important as the work of Peter (who the papacy claimed their legitmacy from). Given that the the church(S. Maria Novella) and the patron were both Dominicans and that Thomas Aquinas was one of the more famous Dominicans, it is only reasonable that a work for this location would toot the Dominican’s horn quite strongly.

On a side note, since nobody’s picking up on the current identification challenge I’m extending it a day.

*Millard Meiss had a rather famous theory that Florentine painting later in the 14th due to the disaster of the Black Death. Other scholars have argued against this by pointing out that the shift had started even before the Black Death; it’s worth noting in Meiss’s defense that all sorts of things had been going wrong before then(the Great Famine of 1315-17, the Bardi and Peruzzi banks collapsing, etc). In general, the 14th century was rather cruddy.

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