Vallombrosa Altarpiece. St Michael the Archangel, St John Gualbert, St John the Baptist and St Bernardo degli Uberti; Two cherubs with scroll (bottom centre); St Michael the Archangel weighing souls, St John Gualbert and the ordeal by fire, Beheading of St John the Baptist, St Bernardo degli Uberti is taken to prison (on the predella)
Andrea del Sarto (Andrea d'Agnolo, Florence 1486-1530)
The panels we see today, presented on a neutral panel, were originally the compartments of a large altarpiece placed on the high altar of the Romitorio delle Celle church in Vallombrosa, (Florence). Giovanni Gualberto and Bernardo degli Uberti, the second and fourth from the left, founders of the Vallombrosian order, are accompanied by the archangel Michael and Saint John the Baptist, placed alternately in front or to the side. The panels, together with another smaller one with two angels holding sheet music with songs praising the Virgin, surrounded a medieval icon, re-evoked in today's setting by the neutral outline in relief in the middle of the supporting panel.
In the predella, the episodes most indicative of the life or role of each of the saints follow one another, depending on their position. Starting from the left, the archangel Michael weighs souls as he wrestles with the devil. This is followed by a scene that recalls a historical event of the Vallombrosan order, which took place in 1068 at the Badia di Settimo in Florence. John Gualbert had accused the bishop of Florence of simony (i.e. selling spiritual benefices) and the people had demanded the ordeal against the monk Peter, a follower of John (ordeal was the practice of subjecting an accused person to a dangerous trial to prove his innocence by making God save him). Peter walked through a fire unharmed and the bishop was found guilty. The third scene shows the martyrdom of John the Baptist, beheaded by Herod to please Salome, and in the last Bernardo degli Uberti is imprisoned in Parma, where he had gone to preach. The sequence lacks the central story with the Annunciation, perhaps lost at the time of dismemberment.
A work from the last phase of Andrea's career and life, the Vallombrosa altarpiece is distinguished by the solemn and evocative tone of the figures, an impression accentuated by the lowered point of view (in their original arrangement, the saints were above the worshippers' viewpoint). In this, as in other paintings carried out in the same period, painters from the second half of the century were to find a source of inspiration for the development of Counter-Reformation art.
A. Natali in Andrea del Sarto, 1486- 1530. Dipinti e disegni a Firenze, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, 8 novembre 1986 - 1 marzo 1987), a cura di A. Cecchi, A. Natali, C. Caneva, V. de Martini, Firenze 1986, pp. 144-148.