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Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer

Artist: Sassetta
(Siena or Cortona ca. 1400 – 1450 Siena)

Date: ca. 1423–1425
Medium: tempera and gold on wood
Dimensions: 23.6 × 39 cm
Classification: painting
Inventory Number: 32
Department: Old Master Paintings

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+Description

Saint Thomas Aquinas in Prayer

"You have written well of me, Thomas" said the vision of Christ, according to the legend, to Saint Thomas of Aquinas, when he prayed for a sign of whether what he had written was true. The last great painter of the lyrical Sienese Gothic school, Sassetta's brush brings to life with a kind of "magic realism" the enchanting world where the believer engages in intimate discourse with the divine sphere day by day. The saint now pleads for inspiration in front of a household altar, and his prayer is answered: Christ embodies in golden light and sends to him the dove of the Holy Spirit. The miracle takes place in the interior of a monastery, brought to life with many familiar details. The codices left open on the desks remind us the friars who used to fill the library with life. In the background a view opens onto a garden and within it a fountain, the centre of everyday life in the monastery.
This tiny masterpiece comes from a polyptych's predella, the horizontal base supporting the larger pictures. The altarpiece was commissioned by the Sienese guild of wool merchants, and was kept locked in a cupboard in the guild's headquarters. Each year however on the feast of Corpus Christi it was erected in front of the building, and an open-air mass was celebrated before it to the participants in the procession. The tradition lasted until the sixteenth century, when the altarpiece was moved into a church. Finally it met the fate of so many medieval polyptychs: it was sawn into pieces and sold to art collectors.

Axel Vécsey