Simone Martini’s St. Luke (c.1330’s) and other saints

The allegory of art within art described on this site began long before the Renaissance. Although I have not discovered its origin, it is likely to have begun at a very early date because the principles involved are those of early Christianity's as well. The only way to find truth (ie. God) is to look inwards because, outside the body, all is fleeting and subjective. Inside, deep inside, beyond our own selfish ego or personality lies a self-less Self that we all have (and share) and which continues regardless of our own death. In early Christianity it was known as Christ. Jesus, the archetypal account of it, showed us the way.

Simone Martini's panel of St. Luke painted in the 1330's is an early example, now in the Getty Museum, Los Angeles. The Museum informs its public that St. Luke as an evangelist can be seen writing his gospel. That is only partly true because St. Luke was also believed to be a painter and the first artist to draw the Virgin Mary. He raises his quill from the page as though in thought, processing perhaps some divine idea. Yet note how the lower edge of the book appears to rest on the frame and his left arm is lengthened considerably to support it.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Martini, St. Luke (c.1330's) Tempera on wood. Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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The extreme length of that left arm is a subtle sign that the hand may really be in our space, outside the picture's environment. Indeed if the book rests on the frame, as it seems to, then its top edge must project out of the picture.

The right hand holding the pen looks more like an artist's "painting" the picture than a writer's creating the book. The structure of the left hand too, its thumb widely separated from the fingers, is a common symbol in art for a palette-hand because a painter's thumb always stretches to go through the thumb-hole of a palette.1 Near it the pot of ink on the ledge reads like "a pot of paint".

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of hands in Simone Martini's St. Luke

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Another panel by Simone of St James Major is less demonstrably a self-representation though the saint's staff does closely resemble a painter's mahlstick. Hanging from it is the cockle shell attribute of the saint which might also refer in this instance to the many ways in which shells were used in an artist's studio, especially as containers for paint. Many early self-portraits include them.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Martini, St. James the Major Tempera on wood

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St. Matthew, like Luke, an evangelist, is posed in another panel by Simone much like St. Luke. Once again the book appears to rest on the frame's lower edge. Its top, therefore, must project into our space, the hand yet again even closer to us. Instead of St. Luke's pallette-hand gesture, though, St. Matthew holds the ink pot ("paint pot") in the same hand. With the book leaning towards us, Matthew's other arm is shown in such extreme foreshortening that its hand must also project out of the frame which is why the quill is bent. It curls backwards in sympathy towards the painting, on its way to "paint", so to speak, the surface of the painting we are looking at.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Martini, St. Matthew Tempera on wood

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The references in this panel depicting St. Andrew are more subtle but no less present. His large hands and long fingers emphasize their importance to an artist but also suggest that the hand is far in front of his figure, yet again in our space. One with long fingers  "touches" the surface of the book and the painting as a symbol for "painting" it. The other hand, its thumb extended away from its fingers, is therefore the "palette-hand".

In all four paintings of these saints, all created in the first half of the fourteenth century, the symbols of self-reference in art are present. Like all later artists, Simone did not invent this allegory, he just continued it.

Captions for image(s) above:

Martini, St. Andrew Tempera on wood

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More Works by Martini

Notes:

1. Although the palette-hand gesture has rarely been noted, it is so common in works by significant artists that I could provide dozens of examples. Michael Fried describing Courbet's Wounded Man recognizes the hand, its thumb extended away from the fingers in a grip, as a symbol for the palette-hand. Michael Fried, Courbet’s Realism (University of Chicago Press) 1990, p. 193; In Picasso's Parody of Manet's Olympia the fingers of one of his hands resemble a brush while the other has the thumb in the palette-gesture. 

2. See two illuminations of women painters in antiquity using shells to hold paint in the last frame of the entry on Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The Birth of Venus itself is another example.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 21 Jul 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.