The Ascension of Christ


c. 1445

The Ascension of Christ

This panel originally formed part of the predella of an altarpiece. A two-inch strip was added to the right side at some time in the past to counterbalance the asymmetric nature of the composition; this crudely painted addition has recently been removed.

The left-hand margin still retains part of a gilded classical pilaster, decorated with finely executed punching. This pilaster served to divide the different compartments of the predella, and the motifs based upon a similar usage in Fra Angelico’s St. Mark Altarpiece, which was executed between 1438 and 1443[1].

The refinement and advanced technique evident in this predella panel make it of particular importance as an example of Tuscan painting in the middle of the fifteenth century; not only does the artist reveal a clear knowledge of Masaccio’s prototypes but he also betrays an awareness of the most recent stylistic advances in painting as executed by both Domenico Veneziano and Fra Angelico[2]. The clear tonality of the colours allied to the rather solemn, essential quality of the composition, with its robustly modelled, highly volumetric figures, all show a very original talent in the process of redefining the lessons the artist has learned from his most illustrious contemporaries.

Our painter’s technique may be closely compared to Domenico Veneziano’s predella panels for the Santa Lucia dei Magnoli altarpiece representing The Stigmatisation of St. Francis and St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness; both now in the National Gallery, Washington[3] (see figs. 2 and 3). There is a similar use of obliquely cut off profiles to the heads and outlines of the figures, of pallid, translucent, yet luminous colouring, and the same attention given to the minute detailing of the trees in the background. The use of a dark outline in our panel to give prominence to the shapes of the figures also accords with Domenico’s style.

The exhibited panel represents The Ascension with Christ rising in the Heavens between two groups of angels. Beneath, the Apostles are ranged kneeling in a semi-circle in a very three-dimensional and ambitious formula for this date. The group to the right is seen from behind with their garments arranged in deep ‘linen folds’ and with spiky outstretched hands. The empty marble tomb lies at the centre of the semi-circle. This composition is highly innovative when compared to conventional iconography and shows a clear awareness of Donatello’s relief of The Ascension and St. Peter receiving the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, which was executed before 1430 for the altar frontal of the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence (now in London, Victoria and Albert Museum)[4].  In our panel, the figure of the Virgin, who kneels with outstretched arms, is almost a direct borrowing from Donatello’s relief, while the figures of the Apostles also share a similar typology, with the sense of movement accentuated by the exaggerated gesturing of hands and arms. The obvious attempt to accentuate the three dimensionality of the forms, allied to the solemn classicising nature of the deeply folded drapery, arranged in substantial bunched folds in order to accentuate its mass, indicate that our artist was consciously remembering Donatello’s recent prototype, while at the same time reinterpreting in an innovative, rather than a pedestrian way, the spirit of Masaccio’s compositions.

This becomes particularly evident in the way that our artist lends depth and space by introducing a considerable landscape on the left side, thereby pushing the subject matter off centre to the right so that the composition appears to be slightly asymmetric but at the same time is carefully balanced by the distant, almost metaphysical city, surrounded by its walls and towers. In this sophistication, the artist perhaps, is closer to Fra Angelico than to Domenico Veneziano, a similarity also shown by the use of pale colouring, whose pallid translucence harmonises so well with the gilded background, thus serving to heighten the atmospheric quality of the design.

This rather remarkable morphology of the figures, as well as a tendency to adapt and combine in the freest possible way the influence of the leading Florentine artists of the day, has led some observers to consider an Umbrian origin for the exhibited panel.[5]

Most recently Todini’s proposal that this is a work by Domenico Veneziano has been rejected by most experts and Mauro Minardi,[6] who personally inspected the panel, has published this predella as an important early work by Girolamo Giovanni da Camerino, thus reconfirming an attribution first proposed by Volpe and later supported by Boskovits, Bellosi and Laclotte. Minardi particularly drew attention to the influence of Piero della Francesca thus also drawing attention to elements first remarked upon by Keith Christiansen.  There is unquestionably a similarity in the morphological types in our predella and those in the early lunette of the Pietà above Girolamo di Giovanni’s Annunciation in the Pinacoteca Communale in Camerino.

However, in 2013 in a MS. Communication Minardi on the basis of archival evidence changed the attribution yet again:

« […] since I published my article about that artist in 1998. More archival evidence about Giovan Angelo d’Antonio da Camerino were found in 2003: a new document testifies that a Crucifixion traditionally considered by Girolamo (Castel San Venanzio, church of Saint Lawrence) was commissioned to this last artist (M. Mazzalupi, Giovan Angelo d’Antonio 1452: un punto fermo per la pittura rinascimentale a Camerino, in “Nuovi Studi”, VIII, 2003, pp. 25-32); at the time the only work signed by Girolamo, the Madonna della Misericordia in the Museo Civico of Camerino, was always debated by scholars because of its less quality compared with the others ascribed to the same painter. That’s why in the Camerino exhibition of 2002, when archival researches were still on work, all the paintings attributed to Girolamo (including your predella) were displayed as a work of a Master of the Spermento Annunciation (possibly Giovanni Angelo d’Antonio; this Annunciation is the best painting in quality) and then connected to the personality of Giovan Angelo, the artist that Frederico Zeri thought could be identified with the Master of the Barberini panels (now considered to be Fra Carnevale). This new identification Girolamo is the author of the above-mentioned Madonna della Misericordia and of other few paintings. »

[1] J. Pope-Hennessy, Fra Angelico, 2nd edition, London 1974, pp. 199-201.

[2] M. Boskovits, who saw this panel many years ago at that time made a note attributing it to Girolamo di Giovanni da Camerino (Ms. Communication).  This may have been as a result of prior annotation on the photograph by the late Carlo Volpe.   This photo is now in the Volpe archive at Bologna University.  A. De Marchi has proposed a Lucchese origin, suggesting an attribution to the Maestro dei Santi Quirico e Giulitta, and Everett Fahy was also prepared to consider this possibility.  However, the refinement and Innovation shown in our panel seems to be far beyond the more pedestrian renderings of this master. F. Todini initially was inclined to give this panel to Domenico Veneziano. Wohl (Ms. communication) definitely excludes Domenico’s hand, while recognising his influence, and favours a Florentine rather than a Lucchese source between 1436-1440; he notes the highly individualistic iconography. ‘…I do not see in the picture either the mind or the hand of Masaccio or Domenico Veneziano, the painter whom it most resembles… the picture nevertheless contains striking appropriations of their styles, as Todini points out … That being the case, it seems to me that the most apt designation of the panel would be that it is by a Florentine imitator of Masaccio and Domenico Veneziano…’ (3.1.95).  ‘…What does not fit in my view is the notion that the master is Lucchese. He is surely Florentine in every respect. Your dating, only two years after Masaccio’s death, seems a little early.  I would say 1435-1440.  The subject also needs clarification.  It is a very unusual Ascension of Christ’ (1.6.95).

[3] H. Wohl, The Paintings of Domenico Veneziano, London 1980, pp. 127 ff.

[4] Cf, J. Pope-Hennessy, Donatello, Italian edition, Turin 1993, pp.122 if. It is interesting to note that Pope-Hennessy has suggested that Donatello may have collaborated with Masaccio in the Brancacci commission. Bellosi has also suggested that Luca della Robbia may be the author of certain drawings in the Uffizi which are extremely close to Domenico Veneziano’s style.

[5] Keith Christiansen (oral communication) was intrigued by a possible Umbrian connection. While not offering an opinion, Christiansen formulated a tentative but interesting hypothesis. Recently published documents (cf, J. Banker, ‘Piero as Assistant to Antonio d’Anghiari in the 1430’s, in The Burlington Magazine, January 1993, pp; I6~2I; id., ‘Un documento inedito del 1432’, in Rivista d’Arte, 1990,42, pp. 254~257) show that we know virtually nothing about Piero della Francesca’s early career, but we do now know that he was productive. In 1439, he collaborated with Domenico Veneziano on the frescoes for the Choir of Sant’Egidio (now destroyed) in Florence (cf., Wohl, 1980, op. cit., p. zot). It is intriguing to hypothesise that many of the elements which combine the styles of Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano would probably also have formed the basis of Piero della Francesca’s early style and that therefore this panel could perhaps compare closely to his early style.

Both Banker and Dabell (Paragone, 417, 1984, pp.73-94) have shown that Piero was productive from as early as 1432, thus confirming a hunch first postulated by Longhi. Piero is now known to have undertaken at least five major commissions with Antonio d’Anghiari, working in and around Borgo San Sepolcro before 1438. Documentation regarding the structure of the payments shows conclusively that he was working as an individual painter or assistant and not just as an apprentice. Already by 1432 he is identified as a ‘painter’. In 1438 a quittance dated the 8th of January shows that Piero had recently worked in three different churches in and around the Borgo. Again, Piero is referred to as pictor and is paid for his production of ‘pictures’. One of the churches referred to in the quittance is the now destroyed church of San Michele in Citerna, where an altarpiece was executed.

It is interesting to note that Banker (op. cit., 1990, p.246) even goes so fat as to suggest that Piero’s involvement, documented 29.12.1432, with the altarpiece, destined to be completed by Sassetta, for the church of San Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro, may even have been for another as yet unidentified altarpiece because of certain ambiguities in the documentation and that in any case Piero’s birth date must be moved backwards closer to 1415. What is therefore clear is that, if not prolific, Piero’s unrecognised output between 1432 and 1439 was substantial. It is therefore intriguing to postulate that the influences evident in, and the advanced sophistication of the style apparent in the predella panel here exhibited, may be very similar to exactly those characteristics one might expect to see in an early work by Piero della Francesca.


[6] Prospettiva, nos. 89-90, pp. 20-22, fig. 8.

8 x 23 in., 21.2 x 57.2 cm
Tempera and Gold on Panel

Private Collection, Paris.

Richard Getty, sold Sotheby’s, London, 29/10/69 lot 152 as Vecchietta.


Minardi, ‘Sotto il segno de Piero: il caso di Girolamo di Giovanni e un episodio di pittura di corte a Camerino’, Prospettiva, nos 89-90, Jan-April 1998, pp. 20-22, fig. 8.

Mazzalupi, Nuovi Studi, VIII, 2003, pp. 25-32.


London, Matthiesen Gallery, Gold Backs 1320-1450, 1996, pp. 126-130, ill.

Lucca, Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Sumptuosa tabula picta: Pittori a Lucca alla fine del Gotico e Rinascimento, 1998, ex. catalogue (as Maestro di Santi Querico e Giulitta).

Camerino, Convento San Domenico, Il Quattrocento il Camerino: Luce prospettiva nel cuore della Marca, 2002, pp. 202-204, illus, pl. 41 (as Maestro dell’ Annunciazone de Spermento, aka Giovanni Angelo d’Antonio da Camerino)

Where is It?
Matthiesen Gallery
Historical Period
Gothic to Early Renaissance - 1300-1450
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Other Regions
1996-Gold Backs 1250 - 1480.
An exhibition held on behalf of The Arthritis and Rheumatism Council. Limited edition hardback catalogue of the exhibition held in London and New York. 154 pages, fully illustrated with 37 colour plates and 54 black and white text illustrations. Foreword and four essays. £40 or $65 inc. p.& p.

(Click on image above)
Price band
$250,000 - $350,000