Some paintings are intended, from the artist’s first conception, to be viewed together. Yet over the following years, they are broken up or split apart. This article looks at some polyptychs that have been separated, and other paintings that came close to being destroyed altogether.
In February 1426, Masaccio was commissioned to paint a large and complex polyptych altarpiece for a chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa, and spent much of that year working on it. It appears to have been completed by the end of 1426, but in the 1700s it was dismantled and its individual paintings dispersed. Masaccio’s design was centred on The Virgin and Child with Four Angels, and this reconstruction shows how the eleven panels so far identified were probably placed. It’s thought to have originally consisted of a total of twenty panels.
Its centrepiece, The Virgin and Child with Four Angels (1426), is a fairly conventional portrait of the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ on her left knee, surrounded by four angels. Mary wears her usual deep ultramarine cloak, and Christ is eating a grape, symbolic of his future Passion. Masaccio models the faces and drapery to give them form, and although the perspective projection of the Virgin’s throne isn’t perfect, it is reasonably close; coupled with the two angels shown behind the throne, it gives further depth to the scene.
The other panel of central importance is his Crucifixion (c 1426), again composed to the standard formulae. In keeping with his efforts to depict 3D space more faithfully, Masaccio has painted this in recognition of the fact that, at the top of the altarpiece, it will always be viewed from below. Accordingly Christ’s head appears to be oddly flexed at the neck, when the painting is seen from perpendicular to its picture plane. He has shaded and modelled Christ’s body, the faces, and clothes of the three Marys to give very effective depth and volume.
Sadly, we’ll never see the whole altarpiece as Masaccio intended.
Until more detailed analyses were undertaken in the late twentieth century of four of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, it had been assumed that they were four separate works. Key to understanding their relationship was his Wayfarer (or Pedlar), which had been turned into a separate octagonal tondo by cutting down and fastening together its two halves, which had originally formed the exterior of the triptych.
Since then the interior of the wings have been reconstructed: The Ship of Fools and Gluttony and Lust form the left wing, and Death and the Miser the right wing, as reconstructed below. As the centre panel is still missing, it’s hard to establish the overall theme of Bosch’s original triptych.
The exterior is a circular tondo showing the figure of a travelling man in the foreground, against a countryside background with a single tumbledown building.
The left wing shows a ‘ship of fools’ in its upper section, below which are scenes of gluttony and lust, on the water and the bank (below).
The right wing shows a frail and emaciated man in bed, being tended to by an angel, with a devil poised above him, and the figure of death coming in through the door.
What did its centrepiece show?
From 1503 to 1506, Leonardo da Vinci lived and worked in Florence, where his major project and one of the most substantial of his artistic career was a mural of the Battle of Anghiari for the Palazzo Vecchio there. This was to be accompanied by a painting of the Battle of Cascina which was painted by Michelangelo.
Leonardo received this commission soon after he arrived back in Florence, in the autumn of 1503, and worked on the cartoon during 1504. He seems to have been painting it from scaffolding in 1505, but took leave of absence from his work there in 1506, and never returned to complete it.
For a long time, it was claimed that this oil painting, known as the Tavola Doria, was a trial panel made by Leonardo immediately before starting work on the wall. It’s more likely to have been a copy made by another artist at the time. It gives an idea, though, of the tightly-composed small group Leonardo chose to paint.
As Peter Paul Rubens couldn’t have seen Leonardo’s original, this undated version of The Battle of Anghiari attributed to him was probably made from the latter’s preliminary drawings, and is almost certainly more extensive than the mural itself, if the evidence of the Tavola Doria is to be believed.
Tragically, Leonardo’s wall painting was destroyed in the middle of the sixteenth century. There have been many subsequent attempts to reconstruct what it might have looked like, but the Tavola Doria and Rubens’ fuller treatment are probably the best that we will get.
Some paintings have survived extraordinary abuse and destructive events.
Masaccio’s most important frescoes are in the Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, which was very badly damaged by fire in 1771. It seems hard to believe now how close they came to total destruction.
Masaccio’s Holy Trinity in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in Florence is one of the single most important works in the European canon. It was described in 1549 by Giorgio Vasari as deserving “endless praise, above all because he gave shape in his masterful painting to the beautiful style of our own times.”
Yet a few years later, in 1565, that same Vasari painted over parts of Masaccio’s fresco, and in 1570 Vasari’s altarpiece was installed in front of what remained of Masaccio’s work, obscuring it from view until 1861.
As if that weren’t enough, in the late 1850s it was decided to remodel the interior of Santa Maria Novella according to prevailing taste. Before Masaccio’s masterpiece, the foundation of all subsequent realist painting, could be seen again, it had to be moved as it ‘interrupted the rhythm of the nave wall’. In 1858, most of the fresco was detached from the church wall and moved to the entrance wall. Not all of it, though: the skeleton and tomb below were left in place, presumably because they had been forgotten.
Then in 1950, the remains of the main part of Masaccio’s fresco were restored, the bottom fragment rediscovered, and the two parts were finally reunited when the top section was moved back to its original location. It has remained there since 1954. Ornella Casazza’s account of the abuse suffered by this painting almost defies belief.
We don’t just do it with old masters. During 1890-91, Claude Monet’s studio contained the complete set of paintings in his Grainstacks series, but even before they went on view for sale, the series was being divided up.
Inevitably, to fetch the highest prices, paintings in the series were sold off individually, and are now dispersed in over fourteen different galleries and some private collections across the world. Since they left Monet’s studio in 1891, no one has seen all 25 or 26 paintings together, and given their individual value, no one ever will again.
What the artist has put together, let the investor break asunder.