The Funeral of Saint Benedict
(Giovanni del Biondo)


The painting is in excellent condition. The grain of the two wooden panel support runs horizontally: the panel is edged with a modern moulding that closely imitates the original surround. The panel may possibly have been slightly trimmed on the left edge since the decorative motif of the gold tooling appears to be incomplete. There are two fine horizontal cracks in the painted surface and a few minor flake losses and some old scratches. There is one superficial area of damage to the gold background where a knot in the panel has pushed forward and the gold here has been repaired. The painting was cleaned by Mario Modestini in 1990.

This small panel, illustrating the Funeral of Saint Benedict, faithfully illustrates the episodes described in The Dialogues of Gregory the Great. In this text we learn that two monks had a vision after St. Benedict’s death and saw a celestial pathway illuminated by heavenly light and covered in carpets leading from the monastery at Monte Cassino upwards to heaven. A celestial being told them that this was the road, specially prepared for Saint Benedict, which led to Paradise.

Our panel was once part of a series illustrating the Life of Saint Benedict and would have formed the concluding episode. Panels in the Acton Collection, Florence, representing respectively Saint Benedict fleeing Rome and The Saint in the Hermitage at Subiaco also belong to the same series, together with two further panels in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, depicting The Resurrection of a Young Monk and The Vision of Saint Benedict (Inventory numbers 52.36; 52.37). one may conclude from their respective dimensions that all these panels almost certainly formed the compartments to the predella of a large polyptych. On the other hand, it is also possible that, since the proportions of the five known panels differ from those normally preferred by Giovanni del Biondo for his predellas, as well as the fact that several well-known episodes from the life of the saint are absent. The series was possibly left incomplete. In this case, these small panels could have formed part of an altar dossal where the individual panels would have surrounded a large figure of the saint himself. The black habits of both the saint and the other monks in our panel would indicate that the series was originally destined for a Benedectine or Vallombrosian church.

Our panel was first published in 1933-34 by Colasanti, who attributed it to Bernardo Daddi, as did Berenson in 1936 (ops. Cit.). in 1935 Beenken (op. cit.) preferred to attribute the panel to Giotto. In 1962, Zeri (op.cit) correctly restored the painting to Giovanni del Biondo, comparing our predella to the two panels in Toronto and with the two Acton panels which had already been given to the artist by Offner and Kaftal (op. cit.). Zeri, while praising the quite extraordinary quality of the five panels, also noted that they clearly surpassed everything else in the artist’s production. Although all subsequent art historians have accepted the attribution of the five panels to Giovanni del Biondo, few have accepted Zeri’s proposal that they related to the altar panel depicting a full-length St. Benedict which was formerly on the Paris art market. Although Offner and Steinweg (op. cit) recognise the latter as being the work of Giovanni del Biondo, they placed it in an earlier phase of the artist’s career. Both Meiss and Boskovits (op. cit) rejected the attribution to del Biondo of the Paris panel and suggested instead that it was of Pisan origin.

There are several differences of opinion regarding the dating of the series of Predella panels, despite the fact that all the art historians who have studied the problem agree that they must be placed early in the artist’s career. This discord serves to only underline the difficulty in establishing Giovanni del Biondo’s evolution. ‘A task both beyond human powers and even more so beyond human patience’ (Offner, op. cit., 1956). Zeri was inclined to date the panels within the seventh decade of the century and was supported in this by Offner and Steinweg, who proposed a date of 1366, after the San Francesco a Castelfiorentino frescoes and the Presentation in the Temple in the Accademia Gallery, Florence (Inventory number 8462) and therefore prior to the Contini Bonaccorsi collection’s St. John the Baptist, which is now in storage at the Uffizi. Bellosi (op. cit., 1963) suggested a later dating around 1375, which would place the panels close to the polyptych in the church of San Donato in Poggio at a time when the artist was reverting to the style of Bernardo Daddi and moving away from the flatter outlined forms which he had derived from the influence of Orcagna. Galli (op. cit., 1993), who dates the series of Saint Benedict predellas to the period 1365-1375, noted a similar stylistic change. He placed the predellas close in date to the St. John the Baptist, formerly in the Bonacossi collection and to the triptych which in 1993 was on the Turin art market with Gallino. However, neither of the two latter works can really be securely dated. Boskovits (op. cit., 1975) is of a different opinion; he placed the paintings very early in Giovanni del Biondo’s career, between 1355-60, in relation to the Strozzi chapel frescoes in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, since he notes very strong links with the works of Nardo di Cione dating from the sixth decade of the century. All the scholars agree unanimously that the extraordinarily high quality of the predellas is unequalled in the artist’s oeuvre.

The detailed descriptive style of the predellas takes account of the smallest detail, and although deriving from a more monumental form of imagery, transforms this, with a lightness of touch and brilliance of colour, into a miniaturised version which is both on a more domestic and intimate scale while still retaining the solemnity of the composition.

In these predellas one senses that Giovanni del Biondo’s coherent understanding of the space in the compositions still derives from his knowledge of the great early fourteenth century Florentine cycles of mural painting- this sense of space seems to disappear in the artist’s more mature works.

The iconography of the Funeral of Saint Benedict relies on that of Giotto’s Funeral of Saint Francis in the Bardi chapel. However, Giovanni’s particular tendency to accentuate the expressive outlines of his facial types is already quite evident in our predella. Giovanni seems also to be not only aware of works by Giotto but also of Gaddi, and this is evident in the iconography of Saint Benedict in the Hermitage at Subiaco (Acton collection), which on one single panel combines two separate episodes from the story: the devil breaking the bell being used by the monk Romano to summon food for Saint Benedict, and the episode when the angel calls a monk to bring an Easter feast to the saint. This same combination of two episodes can be seen in Taddeo Gaddi’s frescoes for the refectory in Santa Croce, Florence. The architectural constructions and the strong landscape elements again echo Taddeo, while the monk, who bears the processional cross to the right of our picture might almost be a direct quotation from Giotto’s composition of The Funeral of St. Francis for the wardrobe of the Santa Croce Sacristy.

It seems probably therefore, that Giovanni del Biondo’s cycle of Benedictine predellas may well have served as a direct example for Spinello Arentino’s frescoes in the Sacristy of San Miniato, as there are numerous iconographic similarities, particularly in the episodes which illustrate the Funeral and the Way to Paradise.

All five od these small panels by Giovanni del Biondo show the same technique of thickly applied, softly modelled paint. He probably learned this technique from his early association with the Daddi workshop, but equally he would have absorbed it by learning from Nardo di Cione. The flesh tones of the Benidctine monks are accentuated by luminous highlights which in many ways recall Andrea Orcagna, but Giovanni’s volumetric forms are more attenuated than the three-dimensional plasticity of the Orcagnesque school. In this series of small Benedictine predellas, Giovanni develops his own highly individual style, conveying the subtle effects of light with colour. The artist seems clearly to be more attracted to the luminosity depicted in this painting technique rather than to the more massive sculptural construction of solid forms. Perhaps this phase of his development can be explained by a passing interest in the works of Giottino and Giovanni da Milano. Certainly, the manner in which the drapery of the monk’s habits is portrayed is very close to the rich, many folded cloaks of the Doctors of the Church in Santa Croce, Florence, executed by Giovanni da Milano in 1363.

Our panel and its related predellas should, on stylistic grounds, be most closely linked to the triptych which was on the Turin art market, published by Galli (op. cit., 1993), and they are therefore slightly earlier than the dossal of St. John the Baptist in the COntini Bonacossi collection. This latter altar frontal is characterised by a greater sense of volumetric form in the figures in the small lateral compartments, and this is a tendency which seems to permeate all of Giovanni del Biondo’s works that date from after the middle of the eighth decade of the century. For this reason the five small predellas would certainly appear to date from an early stage in the artist’s career and should therefore realistically be dated to a moment close to 1360.

12 5/8 X 13 3/4 inches. 32 X 35 cm
Tempera and Gold on Panel

The Princes Colonna, Rome, before 1962

Private collection Switzerland

Private collection Lausanne by 1975

Private Collection Jersey 1990.


A Colasanti, ‘Quadri fiorentini inediti’. Bollettino d’ arte, XXVII 1933-34, pp. 346-349.

Kunstegeschichte IV, 1935, p.80.

  1. Berenson, Pitture Italiane del Rinascimento, Milan 1936, p. 114.
  2. Kaftal, Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting, Florence 1952.
  3. Gregorio Magno, Vita e miracoli di San Benedetto, edited by I. Boccolini, Rome 1954, p.117.
  4. Offner, ‘A ray of light on Giovanni del Biondo and Niccolo di Tomasso’. Mittejlungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, VII, 1956, pp 173-192.
  5. Klesse, ‘Literaturbericht zur Trecento Malerei in Florenz’, Zeitschift fur Kunstgeschichte, XXV 1962, pp. 2H. Acton, ‘An Anglo-Florentine Collection’, Apollo LXXII, 1965, pp. 273-283.
  6. Bellosi, ‘Da Spinello Arentino a Lorenzo Monaco’, Paragone XVI 1965 no. 187 pp 18-43.
  7. Offner, K. Steinweg, ‘A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting sec. IV vol IV part1. Giovanni del Biondo’, Gluckstadt, 1967 pp. 73-80.
  8. Meiss, ‘Notable disturbances in the classification of Tuscan Trecento paintings’, The Bulrington Magazine, CXIII, 1971, pp. 178-188.

An Exhibition of Italian Panels and Manuscripts from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in honour of Richard Offner, Hartford, Wandsworth Atheneum, 1965, 0.14.

Tesori d’ arte delle grandi damiglie, edited by D. Cooper, Milan, 1966, pp. 29 & 29.

  1. Boskovits, R. Offner, K. Steinweg, ‘Giovanni del Biondo’, book review, The Art Bulletin, LIV, 1982, pp.205-208.
  2. Bellosi, ‘Due note per la pitture fiorentina del Trecento’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, XVII, 1973, pp. 7-22.
  3. Boskovits, La Pitture fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1375- 1400, Florence, 1975, p. 37.
  4. McTavish, K.V. Keeble, K. Lochan, S. Pantazzi, The Arts of Italy in Toronto Collections, 1300—1800, Exhibition catalogue, Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1981-1982, p.25.

La Basilica di San Miniato al Monte a Firenze, edited by F. Gurrieri, L. Berti, C. Leoparti, Florence 1988., p. 228.

Dizionario della pittura e dei pittori, Turin 1990, p. 611.

Antichi Maestri Pittori, Quindici anni di studi e ricerche, exhibition catalogue edited by G. Romano, Turin, 1993, p. 32.


Matthiesen Gallery, ‘Gold Backs 1300-1450’, 1996

Where is It?
Acquired by a Private Collector from The Matthiesen Gallery
Historical Period
Gothic to Early Renaissance - 1300-1450
Religious: New Testament
Italian - Tuscan
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.

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