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Object details

Orsini Polyptych
29,5 × 82,1 × 2 cm
Inventory number: 

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The KMSKA has four panels of the Orsini polyptych. The first two depict the Annunciation, with The angel Gabriel (inv. no. 257) telling the enthroned and astonished Virgin Mary (inv. no. 258) that she will become pregnant. The other two scenes are from the Passion: The Crucifixion (inv. no. 259) and The Descent from the Cross (inv. no. 260). The first one shows Christ on the Cross flanked by two angels. His companions are mourning in the left foreground, and there is a crowd of soldiers with flags on the right. At the back Longinus, who was said to be a blind soldier, is thrusting a lance into Christ’s side. The blood from the wound restores his sight. In the next scene Christ’s dead body is taken down from the Cross. Once again his companions react with an outpouring of emotion. Christ’s blood flows down onto Adam’s skull at the bottom, which according to tradition was buried at the spot where Christ redeemed mankind from Original Sin. The Annunciation and the Passion are linked because they illustrate Christ’s incarnation.
Kneeling beside the skull in The Descent from the Cross is a strikingly smaller man in prayer. He is the donor of the polyptych, very probably Napoleone Orsini, scion of an influential aristocratic family who studied and worked in several European cities and was a cardinal at the papal court in Avignon. It was said that he owned a nail from Christ’s Cross, which he bequeathed to the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence. That may explain both the prominence of the nails in The Descent from the Cross and the donor’s inclusion in this scene, for donors were usually depicted with The Crucifixion. Orsini was probably influenced by the ideas of the deeply religious Franciscan, Ubertino of Casale, who was in his service. According to Ubertino, the instruments of the Passion, such as Longings’s lance and the nails of Cross, had a spiritual power.
Originally these four panels were two panels that were painted on both sides, with Gabriel on the back of The Crucifixion and the Virgin on the back of The Descent from the Cross. They were sawn down crosswise so that they could be hung on a wall. There are two more small panels that belonged to the polyptych. In Paris there is a Carrying of the Cross, with the coat of arms of the Orsini family on the reverse. And in Berlin there is The Entombment, which once probably also had a coat of arms on the reverse. Those two small paintings were the wings of the two Antwerp panels.
When the polyptych was opened it therefore displayed four successive moments from the Passion: the Carrying of the Cross, the Lance Thrust, the Descent from the Cross and the Entombment. The central scene on the back was The Annunciation, with the flanking Orsini coats of arms. The ensemble could be closed and turned around to display the diptych with The Annunciation. The small size and double-sided painting suggests that the Orsini polyptych was used for private devotion. There are other examples of small foldable works of this kind, but they were fairly rare.
Simone Martini, a pioneer of the Italian Renaissance, came from Siena and lived for a long time in Avignon. He signed the polyptych on the frame at the bottom. The Antwerp panels are inscribed ‘PINXIT’ and ‘SIMONE’, and The Carrying of the Cross originally bore the words ‘HOC OPUS’, so the full inscription meant ‘Simone [Martini] painted this work’. There was probably a date on the frame of The Entombment, but since it is missing there is disagreement about the date of the polyptych. Some believe that it was painted when Martini and Orsini were both at the papal court in Avignon, between 1335 (Martini’s arrival) and 1342 (Orsini’s death). According to Petrarch, Martini then also painted a portrait of Orsini. Other scholars, though, link the style firmly to Martini’s work from the period 1320-1330.
The Orsini polyptych was already in France at an early date, and had a great influence on late medieval manuscript illuminators like the Van Limburg brothers. They incorporated motifs from the Orsini polyptych in their Carrying of the Cross and Descent from the Cross in Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Acquisition history

bequest of: ridder Florent van Ertborn, 1841