- Place of origin:
Florence, Italy (made)
ca. 1425-1450 (made)
- Materials and Techniques:
Embroidered linen with silk and metal threads
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case 2
This embroidered picture shows a scene from the Legend of St Verdiana Attavanti (died 1222 or 1242), recluse and patron saint of Castelfiorentino in Tuscany where she was born and died. It is worked in fine multi-coloured silks and gold thread in split stitch on a linen or linen and cotton ground. The gold threads are worn but originally the background would have been shiny and bright. The high quality of the stitching indicates that the maker was a skilled craftsperson, either trained in a guild or in a convent. It is likely that the image was made for a space that was devoted to meditation or prayer. The maker and user may have been the same person. The similarity to religious paintings of this period in terms of colour and imagery should be noted.
The subject matter suggests that the embroidery was made in Tuscany; this saint is not well known outside Italy. St Verdiana (or Viridiana) led a holy life and may have served as a model for girls in whom modesty and religiosity were encouraged. She made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (Spain) before living the rest of her life as a hermit. Many miracles are ascribed to her, and in particular her name is invoked as protection against snake bites. Note the snakes that writhe in front of her. The official cult of this saint is recorded from 1553 when she was canonised. She does however appear in religious images before that date.
Linen panel embroidered with silk and silver and gold thread in split stitch, couched work and or nué. The gold thread is very worn which masks the fact that it would originally have formed a very large proportion of the background, different stitches showing different features.
The picture depicts a scene from the Legend of St Verdiana (Viridiana) Attavanti, recluse and patron saint of Castlefiorentino in Tuscany, northern Italy. To the sound of bells miraculously rung, a group of people enter the saint's cell to find her kneeling dead, while her soul is borne aloft by angels; the snakes whose company she adopted for mortification lie entwined before her. The scene is set in a chamber in which the saint is kneeling at her prayers before a picture; on the walls is a floral pattern. On the left hand side, behind her a group of seven men watch her from beside a belfry, in which two bells swing. Five of the men are tonsured (a sign that they were members of the secular clergy) and the one at the front of the group wears a dalmatic which was originally silver (in or nué technique). Their gestures are of amazement and reverence: the man at the front has his hands raised, palm forward. One figure, whose head alone is visible, holds his hand to his head. Two wear capuccio or chaperons, hoods typical of early 15th-century Tuscany, and long gowns (one with matching sleeves, the other a lucco with slits through which the sleeves of a contrasting undergarment are visible). Their length is indicative of their high status, as short version of the lucco could also be worn. In the centre of the room, above the latticed window, two angels are raising the saint heavenwards. On the left, arms outstretched, a nimbus round her head, St Verdiana kneels before an altar, in front of which writhe two snakes.
Place of Origin
Florence, Italy (made)
ca. 1425-1450 (made)
Materials and Techniques
Embroidered linen with silk and metal threads
Length: 58.5 cm framed, Length: 44 cm unframed, Height: 45 cm framed, Height: 31 cm unframed
Object history note
Before conservation for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries in 2009, the picture was framed, with a fabric covered mount, and a wooden frame. There were signs of damage at the top and on the right where it has at some point been nailed to something. On removal from the frame the nail holes at regular intervals round the edges became visible.
Bought by the Museum in 1857 for £8. No other information available from our registers. Jean-Paul Asselberghers, curator in Brussels (see references), speculated in 1970 that this and kindred panels had possibly been made for the Vallombrosan Order in Tuscany, and left Italy after the Order was dissolved between 1810 and 1819 (during the Napoleonic Wars).
Historical significance: The Church made much use of fine needlework in the execution of ornaments (vestments and furnishings) for public consumption. Like those textiles, this embroidery is made of expensive materials and is finely executed.
Historical context note
Identification of comparable pieces and their function
In 1970 Jean-Paul Asselberghers, curator at the Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire in Brussels, presented the most recent interpretation of this and kindred panels. He suggested that this panel is one of four made for the Order of Vallombrosa. The others are in the Musée royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels and the Musée Cluny in Paris. All four panels match each other in size (to within two or three centimetres), in the disposition of nail holes round their edges, and in their embroidery technique and colours (although Asselberghers only actually studied firsthand the pieces in London and Brussels). Originally, in the late 19th century, the subjectmatter had been identified as two pairs: two panels of St Verdiana and two of St Dominic. He re-identified the saints, suggesting that each scene related to an incident in the life of a different saint revered by the Vallombrosans.
Asselberghers identifies the scenes as: the death of Saint Verdiana (London); the funeral of St Umilita (Humility) Negosanti, foundress and abbess of the convent of Saint John the Evangelist in Florence (now in Brussels); the blessed Pierre Igné successfully surviving trial by fire in 1067 in the presence of Saint John Gualberto (who had founded in 1055 a community in Vallombrosa which followed an adaptation of the Rule of St Benedict) (now in Paris); and St Arialde siezed by the order of the Archbishop of Milan (Paris). All four saints were venerated by the Vallombrosans. Indeed, St Arailde was canonised in 1075, the year following his death. On her death in 1310 St Umilita's corpse was laid out for several days so that the people could pay their respects, such was her popularity - hence the iconography of this panel which can be compared to a painted panel of the death of this saint which was part of a retable consecrated to scenes of the life of the saint, painted by Pietro Lorenzetti for the church of the Vallombrosan monastery of San Salvi in Florence in 1341 and now in the Musée des Offices (For further information, on St Umilita. St Verdiana were the only female saints venerated by the Vallombrosans.
Born in Castelfiorentino in Tuscany in 1182, Verdiana or Viridiana Attavanti died in 1242 and was canonised in 1553, her feast day being February 1st. She made the pilgrimage to Santiago to Compostela before being walled up as a hermit in her native town in a cell adjoining the chapel of St Anthony, with two snakes as company. She lived in her cell for 34 years under the obedience of the Vallumbrosan abbey. The Franciscans claim her as a tertiary (i.e. a lay member of their order). Many miracles are ascribed to her; she is called upon in the litany of the Sick to intercede against snake bites. (D. Attwater. 1983. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, 2nd ed. revised and updated by C.R. John, New York; www.catholicculture.org/lit/prayers Litany by Benjamin Francis Musser OFM (Trinity Communications, 2006) [accessed January 2006]).
Asselberhgers considers that stylistically the embroideries date to the first half of the 15th century (Examination of the dress depicted would suggest the same). He also suggests that the panels were probably most appropriate for use in an antependium on which three horizontal rows of two or three panels flanked a large central panel. He cites the antependium in the collegiate church of Manresa, Catalonia as an example of this type, embroidered in the 14th century. He does not believe they are the right size for dalmatic panels.
Embroidery in 15th-century Italy
Embroidery was both a professional craft and a woman's accomplishment by the early 15th century, the quality and content of the needlework revealing the skill of the author. The identity of the author of the image is usually unknown although some well-known painters, such as Botticelli, made designs for embroidery. Like painting, embroideries could be narrative as well as decorative, the subjectmatter religious or secular. In this particular instance, the content of the embroidery suggests a devotional and didactic function. A focus for prayer, such images could act as behavioural models for their owners, and were usually kept in the more personal and private rooms in the houses of a wealthy family. (Paola Tinagli. Women in Italian Renaissance Art. Gender, Representation and Identity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997, Chapter 5 'The Cult of Female Saints: Images of Devotion and Exempla) It is therefore possible that this embroidery belonged to a woman who considered St Verdiana an appropriate role model because of her saintly behaviour if it was not a section of a larger embroidered piece for an altar frontal or an apparel for a dalmatic. The existence of three other comparable panels suggests that that the altar frontal hypothesis may be most appropriate, though at a later date it could have been used as an inidivual image.
St Verdiana in literature, art and film and Tuscany
Saint Verdiana is mentioned in Bocaccio, DeCameron, Day 5, Story 10.
She appears in Giovanni del Ponte’s Ascension of St John the Evangelist with saints, circa 1410-20 (National Gallery, London) in the habit of a Franciscan tertiary (?) holding a snake in each hand. The painting is inscribed, identifying the saints and she is at the bottom of the left pilaster. A good comparison with this imagery is that in Fra Angelico's Perugia tryptich from the predella of the death of St Nicholas, on the left hand side of the bier (See Martin Davies, Early Italian Schools, 1986, p. 248).
On his return to Spain from exile in 1960, Luis Buñuel made a Palme d’Or winning film, entitled Viridiana and based loosely on a nun who experiences a series of mortifications.
A Museum devoted to St Verdiana has recently opened in Castelfiorentino, near the Sanctuary of Santa Verdiana. It contains works of art by Taddeo Gaddi, Jacopo del Casentino, Francesco Granacci, the Maestro delle Effigi Domenicane, Benedetto da Maiano, Bernardo di Stefano Rosselli among others, as well as illumintated codices, wooden statues, terracottas, historic dress, liturgical and precious objects and reliquaries. (Museo di santa Verdiana, Piazza Santa Verdiana, Propositura Collegiata s.n.c., Castelfiorentino. Phone number: +39 057164096. www.secrettuscany.it/musei_english_%20castelfiorentino_-_santa_verdiana.htm [accessed March 2009])
Additional information on other panels
The Catholic Encyclopedia:[accessed May 2009] states:
'St. Umiltà is usually regarded as the foundress of the Vallumbrosan Nuns. She was born at Faenza about 1226, was married, but with the consent of her husband, who became a monk, entered a monastery of canonesses and afterwards became an anchoress in a cell attached to the Vallumbrosan church of Faenza, where she lived for twelve years. At the request of the abbot-general she then founded a monastery outside Faenza and became its abbess. In 1282 she founded a second convent at Florence, where she died in 1310. She left a number of mystical writings. In 1524 the nuns obtained the Abbey of S. Salvi, Florence. There are still Vallumbrosan nunneries at Faenza and S. Gimignano, besides two at Florence. The relics of Bl. Umiltà and her disciple Bl. Margherita are venerated at the convent of Spirito Santo at Varlungo. The habit is similar to that of the Benedictine Nuns.'
Panel of embroidered linen with silk and metal threads, Florence, ca. 1425-1450
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Farcy, Louis de. La Broderie du XIe siècle jusqu' à nos jours. Angers, 1900, p. 128, no. 54, pl. 54 (also published in Paris in 1890).
Farcy evidently thought the saint was Françoise Romaine. He underlined that the composition 'rappelle les tableaux d'école florentine du Musée de Cluny no. 6340 et 6341'. According to Asselberghers (1970), there is some doubt among curators at Cluny now about the authenticity of these pieces.
Broderies historiées du moyen age et de la Renaissance, ed. Marguerite Calberg, Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels, George Thone publishers, Liege.n.d., pp.10-11 & plate 13
Jean-Paul Asselberghs, 'Une broderie Florentine du XVe siècle, fragment d'un antependium exécuté pour l'ordre de Vallombreuse (?). Essai d'identification iconographique' Bulletin de l'Institut royal du patrimoine artistique, XII, 1970, pp. 177-94)
Fig. 2, Illustrated on p. 180.
Isabella Errera, Musée royaux des Arts décoratifs. Tissus et broderies de la collection Vermeersch. Guide sommaire, Brussels, 1911, p. 17.
G. Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting, Florence, 1952, col. 1009, fig. 1136.
Re-identification of the saint as Saint Verdiana.
Decorative Arts of the Italian Renaissance 1400-1600, exh. cat., Detroit, 1958-9, p . 80, no. 180, fig. p. 87.
Attribution place based on the local cult of this saint. Attribution note: Probably made professionally, possibly in a convent for religious use.
Silver; Linen; Silk thread; Gold thread
Textiles; Religion; Christianity; Embroidery