The art essay

San Bernardino Preaching in the Campo in Siena (1445) by Sano di Pietro (1406–1481)

Saint Bernardino of Siena died on May 20, 1444. By June 7, the prior and the councillors of the Company of the Virgin in Siena had agreed to commission a triptych to commemorate Saint Bernardino’s ministry in Siena. In 1445, the commission was entrusted to Sano di Pietro (1406–1481), a logical choice since this highly regarded Sienese painter headed a workshop that created secular and civic works, altarpieces, and objects of private devotion. A prolific artist, he was renowned for his superb handling of color and for a descriptive style of painting that proved to serve this topic particularly well.

Four themes emerge from a visually layered painting

Sano’s richly detailed and descriptive narrative style leads the viewer through this carefully layered scene, slowly unfolding four major themes: the civic setting of the saint’s ministry; Saint Bernardino himself and his preaching; then the central theme of the panel—the Most Holy Name of Jesus; and, finally, Franciscan aspects of Saint Bernardino’s methodology.

First is the civic setting—the campo in front of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The building itself serves as a backdrop, and the meeting of civic public space and a deeply religious event replicates the usual setting and context for Saint Bernardino’s preaching all over Italy. The preacher carefully orchestrates the setting for his sermons, positioning his simple wooden pulpit in counterpoint to the stone Cappella di Piazza at the base of the Torre del Mangia. Close attention to the background reveals that Saint Bernardino set up small altars in front of the Palazzo, one of which contains icons, including an image of the Madonna and Child. His concern for visual staging left no detail unattended.

The viewer’s eye is next drawn to the preacher, Saint Bernardino, but at first glance he hardly attracts visual attention at all. He is a small figure, standing in his pulpit, not tall, not particularly elegant, and his face is sunken. We know that the saint’s gaunt appearance is the result of Sano’s access to Saint Bernardino’s death mask and Sano used that likeness in all images he painted of him.

One might ask: What draws our visual attention to the saint at all? This is accomplished by techniques for which Sano was already famous. First, all eyes of the large crowd are fixed totally on him and thus draw the viewer’s gaze to his figure. Sano makes it clear that these crowds are attracted, not by an impressive figure, but by his preaching. In the faces and gestures of the crowd we see the powerful impact his preaching is having—the power of the word, rather than the preacher. We also observe the custom of the time that men and women are separated, in this case by a low red curtain which Sano uses to draw the eye directly to the pulpit. There is additional and extensive use of red throughout the crowd, whose clothing is otherwise somber. This creates a welcome visual and chromatic variety, but the red also suggests the power of his preaching, the burning response of his listeners, visible in their eyes and clasped hands, all a powerful visual manifestation of the transforming fire and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Name of Jesus

As attention shifts from the congregation to the saint himself there emerges, finally, the topic of his sermon—the Most Holy Name of Jesus. Saint Bernardino holds in his hand a painted wooden board, an icon of sorts, bearing the first three letters of the Name of Jesus in Greek and surrounded by the rays of the sun. A major component of his ministry was preaching devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, and he always used this painted image to hold the people’s attention. Typical of Sano’s meticulously layered visual narrative technique, the artist has led us slowly from the palazzo, campo, surrounding crowd, and preacher to the true subject of this panel—the Holy Name of Jesus and its image. When the sermon was completed, Saint Bernardino would then invite the congregation to come forward to venerate the sacred image which he had held before them throughout his sermon. So effective was his propagation of devotion to the Name of Jesus throughout Italy that Saint Bernardino became known as the Apostle of Italy. Largely due to his efforts, in 1530 the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Name of Jesus was entrusted to the Franciscan Order and, in 1721, the Feast of the Holy Name was extended to the universal Church.

A Franciscan dimension of his evangelization

The fourth element of this panel is its illustration of how Saint Bernardino, an Observant Franciscan, incorporated the very best of Franciscan spirituality in his promulgation of devotion to the Name of Jesus. By inviting veneration of the icon after the sermon, he allows the Holy Name to become, in a sense, tangible, touchable, just as Saint Francis had, on Christmas Eve at Greccio, allowed the birth of the Savior to become visible and touchable through his use of a simple crèche.

Saint Bernardino embraces the fundamental theology of an incarnational evangelization where images are held up, seen, and touched, making even the Name of Jesus tactile. In a similar way, Sano di Pietro skillfully used this panel of wood and tempera to encapsulate, visually and intellectually, the extraordinary ministry of Saint Bernardino, his personal devotion to the Name of Jesus, and his success in spreading that devotion far and wide.

Saint Bernardino of Siena famously said: “The Name of Jesus is the glory of preachers.” He was canonized in 1450, six years after his death.

Francis J. Green

Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, N.Y.

 

San Bernardino Preaching in the Campo in Siena (1445), Sano di Pietro (1406–1481), Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy. © Luisa Ricciarini / Leemage.