Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 8, 2006
Victor M. Schmidt Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400 Florence: Centro Di, 2004. 352 pp.; 250 ills. Cloth €60.00 (8870384276)

In this elegant publication, Victor Schmidt surveys small Tuscan panel paintings from the duecento and trecento in order to search for the answer to a single question: How did such works function when they were originally created? While a wide variety of such works survives from this period, they are largely without context; information on patronage and provenance for small panels is sparse, as is documentary evidence on usage. Schmidt’s most basic body of evidence is the panels themselves, which demonstrate a wide variety of type and of iconography.

Especially problematic is the lack of information on the patrons and/or original owners of the works. While such information is well known for altarpieces during this period, only rarely (as in a series of rectangular panels by Simone Martini made for a member of the Orsini family) is such information known about the panels that have captured Schmidt’s interest.

Internal evidence about function is, fortunately, more available, thanks to Schmidt’s careful investigation of the physical evidence in those cases where traces of hinges or decoration on both sides of a panel suggest possible reconstructions of dismembered works. Schmidt wisely avoids the thorny problems of connoisseurship and dating that in the past consumed so much scholarly energy; such problems are largely irrelevant for the broader issue that is his focus. While Schmidt carefully provides the latest scholarship on the panels under discussion, he never allows such issues to sidetrack his interest in function and patronage.

Schmidt’s approach throughout is methodical, and his logic in developing his arguments is impeccable. The presentation of the evidence is straightforward, and he never forces a conclusion. In chapter 1, Schmidt uses the story and depictions of the conversion of St. Catherine of Alexandria to introduce his subject. He then devotes chapter 2 to an analysis of the types of panels that will be the focus of his study, discussing size, format, and the terms used to describe such works in documents of the period. In chapter 3 he examines what is known about private devotional practices at the time and the settings in which such practices occurred, thereby establishing where these portable panels were most likely placed. The kneeling figures that appear in many panels offer further evidence about function and patronage; they are the subject of chapter 4. In chapter 5, the manner in which the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and other holy figures are represented is related to contemporary trends in devotion. In chapter 6, Schmidt discusses the relationship of small panels to monumental altarpieces. Chapter 7 is an examination of unusual examples of small panels that were created for special patrons to fulfill a particular need or function. In the concluding chapter, Schmidt compares the Italian production of hinged devotional panels to similar French works in ivory or enamel, a discussion that also provides illuminating insights about function and usage.

The rich footnotes provide additional information on the works discussed and related parallels. In note 103 on page 105, for example, Schmidt lists examples of triptychs with burn marks that demonstrate one aspect of devotional practice, while note 88 on page 265 enumerates small panels, usually diptych wings, that include representations of the figure of St. Francis kneeling at the foot of the Cross. Schmidt’s conclusions are rigorously based on the amassing of such evidence, and it is clear that he has considered every possible aspect of these panels in his study.

Schmidt’s approach is characterized by a careful analysis of the relevant physical evidence offered by surviving panels. His book is a mine of information on a number of topics, including hinging, motifs common to the backs of panel paintings, the use of psalters and prayer books, confraternity practices regarding public and personal prayer, the tradition (or lack thereof) of private cells in monastic establishments, the storage of images, and the use of curtains to protect paintings.

The proliferation of small devotional works throughout Europe during this period is an important indication of increasing wealth across a broad spectrum of society, as well as an index of changing devotional practices. While the variation in size, quality, and elaboration of surviving panels suggests that devotional works could vary in price, Schmidt’s conclusion that they “were within the reach of almost every purse” ignores the fact that such panels would have been out of reach for the laborers and peasants who made up the majority of the Tuscan population at the time. As is almost always the case with European art history before the modern period, our discipline is forced to focus on works made for an elitist group of relatively wealthy patrons or for monks and nuns whose religious orders seem to have made ownership possible.

The diversity of type and iconography demonstrated by the illustrations suggests the highly personal nature of some of these works; while some modest examples were probably produced for the generic buyer, others were certainly the product of specific commissions for patrons with particular devotional needs and/or practices. Although most of these patrons remain unidentified, we can come closer to their devotional experience in these small works than we can in the many large, public altarpieces of the period. While Schmidt might have delved more deeply into what we know about private religious practice during this period, he emphasizes at the beginning that this is a book about late medieval religious objects, not “a study of religious life as such.”

The twenty-five splendid color plates are essential for an understanding of Schmidt’s subject, for they capture the brilliant tempera colors and shimmering gold backgrounds that opened visions of heaven for their devotees. While Schmidt’s goal of understanding how these inspiring panels functioned will always be frustrated by our inability to enter fully into the experiences of those who commissioned and used them, his careful and thoughtful scholarship has greatly expanding our understanding of these works and given us rich new insights into devotional behavior during this period.

David G. Wilkins
Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh, and Senior Faculty, Duquesne University in Rome