The story of the Demidoff Triptych

Alberto Lenza

Analysis, collecting history and attributive hypotheses regarding a vibrant triptych whose mysterious author today is no other than the Master of the Demidoff Triptych

In the Demidoff Triptych, Saint Michael is represented with a pair of scales in his left hand with which he weighs the souls of the dead. Psychostasy, or the weighing of souls, was very common in the religion of the ancients, especially that of the Egyptians [1] and also has echoes in the Holy Scriptures. Passages in the books of the prophet Job (31:6) and the prophet Daniel (5:27) refer to the weighing of good and evil actions on the scales of justice, while in the epistle of Jude (1:9) a dispute is mentioned between Michael the Archangel and Satan over possession of the body of Moses, which presents the Archangel as the defender of the souls of the dead. In one pan of the scales there is usually a grindstone, symbolizing the weight of evil, and in the other the soul itself, or, as in this case, two small naked figures representing the good and evil actions of man; depending on how the scales hang the soul is either saved or condemned. This is why the devil is shown trying to manipulate the result, grasping a pan of the scales to make it hang in his favour, but the Archangel defeats him, crushing him with his foot and piercing his jaws with a long lance. The iconography of Satan in the painting is truly unique: usually represented as a semi-human being with monstrous animal-like features (bat’s wings, horns, forked tail) [2], a serpent in the book of Genesis (Gen 3:1) or a dragon in Saint John’s Apocalypse (cf. Apoc 12:7-9), here instead he appears in the guise of a dog. In the second panel, Saint Raphael takes Tobias by the hand and shows him the path they have to take: the Archangel, in fact, has been sent by God to accompany the young man on an adventurous journey to the city of Rages, in the Media, where he must collect the ten talents his father had lent to a relative twenty years earlier (cf. Tb 4:20-21 and 5:1-18). In his right hand Tobias holds the fish, his traditional iconographical attribute [3], which he has caught in the river Tigris; the gall of the fish would be used to anoint the eyes of his old father, who is blind, and restore his sight (cf. Tob 6:2-4 and 11:7-8). The third panel represents Saint Nicholas wearing a much ornamented omophar – the vestment of a bishop and the symbol of his spiritual and ecclesiastical authority – and holding a red gospel book as well as his crozier. He is portrayed as an elderly man with a short, full white beard and balding head. The gold ground behind him is punched with the inscription ‘Niqola’.

Master of the Demidoff Triptych Emilia?, active in the first half of the 15th century, “Saint Michael the Archangel Weighing the Souls and the Devil”. Tempera on panel, 41.2 x 22.4 cm. Provenance: Florence, Demidoff collection Florence, Carlo De Carlo collection Florence, Lisa De Carlo collection. Courtesy of Moretti Fine Art.

The faces of the archangels, with their soft features, thin arched eyebrows, small mouths and rounded chins have a feminine aspect; this iconography of the angelic figure, which developed from the middle of the 14th Century, was probably influenced by the idea of the angelic woman, but also by the rediscovery of the philosophical doctrine of Pseudo-Dionysius, based on the perfect analogy between the harmony of the universe and female beauty [4]. The paintings are surrounded by a frame with red, white and green bands. On the back of the Saint Raphael and Tobias a frame, painted along the left and upper side and today almost completely lost, encloses the fragment of a coat-of-arms and an old label is stuck to it. On the back of the Saint Michael, inside a frame identical to that of the front depicted along the right and upper edge, is the fragment of a very damaged grey coat-of-arms on a blue field, and written by hand is an old attribution to Pollaiolo. The wooden support, made from a single piece of wood, is in reasonable condition and the state of preservation of the pictorial surface is good.

Master of the Demidoff Triptych Emilia?, active in the first half of the 15th century, “Saint Raphael the Archangel and Tobias Tempera on panel, 38.9 x 22.6 cm. Provenance: Florence, Demidoff collection, Florence, Carlo De Carlo collection, Florence, Lisa De Carlo collection. Courtesy of Moretti Fine Art.

These three panels belonged to a single complex which, as a card fixed to the back of the Saint Michael reads [5], was a big triptych that was in the Demidoff collection; The Demidoffs were a noble family from Saint Petersburg, of which the most famous member Nikolay was an entrepreneur and an ambassador of the Tsar Alexander I, a philanthropist and a passionate collector of works of art that he gathered together from 1824 onwards in Palazzo Serristori in Florence and were subsequently moved by his son Anatole I in his new residence, the sumptuous villa at San Donato in Polverosa, just outside the city. From the 1860s, the Demidoff family began progressively to sell off the collections of their Paris residence and the Florentine villas of Quarto and San Donato with a major sale between 15th March and 10th April 1880. As these three panels do not seem to appear in any of the aforementioned sales, it is rather unclear when the two first arrived in the Carlo de Carlo collection and the last, representing Saint Nicolas, went another way. It is however most probable that all three panels were sold before 1880.

Master of the Demidoff Triptych Emilia?, active in the first half of the 15th century, “Saint Nicholas with crozier and gospel book”. Tempera on panel, 41.5 x 22.3 cm. Provenance: Florence, Demidoff collection, New York, Christie’s sale, 31st May 1991, lot n. 22 (as Bolognese School). Courtesy of Moretti Fine Arts.

It is difficult to hypothesize the original appearance of this triptych; it was probably a cusp- shaped painting, with a representation of the Madonna and Child or the Crucifixion in the centre, the most traditional iconographical subjects, and at the sides two panels with images of the saints which, when they were closed, showed the family arms of the patrons. Or it could have been a retablo, divided into three compartments, with the saints at the sides. For the time being, since the decorations on the back of the Saint Michael and Saint Raphael panels do not coincide, one can only conjecture that the panels were not contiguous. An analysis of the Saint Nicholas provides further clarification. In 1993 the Saint Michael was on the English antique market [6] whereas, together with the Saint Raphael and Tobias, the following year it was in the Gallery of Giovanni Sarti in Paris (oral communication, Miklós Boskovits); these are therefore two of the last works bought by Carlo De Carlo. Assigned to an anonymous Emilian artist by Federico Zeri [6], the two panels were attributed to the circle of Giovanni da Modena in the auction catalogues of the inheritance of Carlo De Carlo [7] in which it is hypothesized that they originally formed part of the predella of a polyptych that was later dismembered. Angelo Tartuferi [8] notes in these paintings the influence of Barnaba da Modena and a noticeable neo-Trecento tendency, while Daniele Benati (oral communication) attributes them to a Bolognese painter and identifies echoes of Orazio di Jacopo and the early production of Michele di Matteo. The Saint Nicholas, on the other hand, in the catalogue of the 1991 Christie’s auction, was generically attributed to the Bolognese School with a dating around 1430.

The style of the paintings is typically Emilian in the expressiveness of the figures, which at times borders on caricature, and the vivid naturalistic interest with which the devil or the fish are depicted; these elements, together with the rich colours, like the winey red of Saint Michael’s robe, and the fullness of the hair, call to mind a painter like Giovanni da Modena, in particular the figures of God the Father of the cymatium and the mourners of the tabelloni of the Crucifix in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna [9], executed in the second half of the second decade of the 15th Century. The humoristic tone of the expressions is also reminiscent of the Bolognese painter Orazio di Jacopo, in particular an unpublished fragmentary panel of his representing Saint Peter, formerly in a private collection and presently with the antiquarian Grassi in New York. The expanded masses and the clothes of Saint Raphael constructed with a sense of their aplomb, on the other hand, recall the diptych divided between the Fondazione Longhi [10] and a private collection (though formerly Lyon, Aynard collection) [11] of Stefano da Ferrara, datable around the middle of the 1420s; on the basis of these stylistic analogies, therefore, we can date the execution of the panels to the third decade of the 15th century. In the works it seems there is also the influence of painting from Piacenza: the layout and the frame with red, white and green bands, in fact, are similar to the wings of a triptych-reliquary from the Musei Civici di Piacenza, executed in the last decade of the Trecento [12]. The soft, pasty pictorial texture and the preference for colour combinations alternating pastel hues with brightly-coloured tints, together with the outline highlighting the sculptural quality of the figures, instead, reveal stylistic affinities with the works of Antonio de Carro; in particular the Saint Nicholas shows physiognomic similarities with that of Saint Augustine Enthroned between two Angels (Parma, private collection [13]; datable on the basis of lost documentation to 1397). However, given the present state, it is impossible to arrive at a certain name for the author of these three paintings that are intriguing for the refinement and elegance of the execution, carried out with such meticulousness that it is reasonable to imagine that the artist was also an illuminator: note, for example the devil’s fur, painted hair by hair with tiny delicate highlights, the lenticular depiction of the gilded bands on Saint Raphael’s tunic, the rippling of the stole of Saint Nicholas’s cope, the rendering of the shadows with delicate gradations of colour, and above all the splendid swelling masses of the Archangels’ hair, embellished with ribbon, extremely becoming, as if they had just come out of the hairdresser. Such careful attention to meticulous representation is also noticeable in the depiction of the elegant and, for the time, fashionable clothes: Saint Michael is wearing a short, close-fitting masculine “vestezola”, a tunic characteristic of the 15th century [14], decorated with acanthus motifs and structured in a way that recalls armour, greaves and pointed iron shoes, while in the other panel Tobias has a child’s dress and short stockings with carefully rolled-over tops [15]. The technical execution is also highly refined: note the splendid detail of the wings applied directly on the gold with ‘sgraffito’ and then punched in the upper part to produce the effect of volume. Saint Michael’s movements are gentle and yet at the same time vigorous, like the recoiling of the left arm in an attempt to remove the scales from Satan’s reach, or the position of the legs, one outstretched to stay the demon and the other bent to counterbalance the weight of the body. These three extremely evocative and refined works, executed by a painter who is yet unknown though endowed with a strong artistic personality, can be attributed to an artist provisionally referred to, given the provenance of the complex, as the Master of the Demidoff Triptych.

[1] D. Benati, in Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. Catalogo gen- erale, I, Dal Duecento a Francesco Francia, Venice 2004, p. 174, entry no. 59.

[2] Idem, in C. Goméz, Pasión por la pintura. La Colección Longhi, Madrid 1998, pp. 65 pl. 6, 155 no. 6.

[3] Colléction Edouard Aynard, Tableaux anciens, Paris 1913, pl. 31.

[4] A. De Marchi, in Il Gotico a Piacenza. Maestri e botteghe tra Emilia e Lombardia, eds. P. Ceschi Lavagetto, A. Gigli, Milan 1998, pp. 100-101, 175-176 no. 18.

[5] L. Gorni, in Il Gotico a Piacenza cit., pp. 109, 192-193 no. 26.

[6] Cf. R. Levi Pisetzky, Storia del Costume in Italia, I, Milano 1964, p. 314 fig. 145.

[7] Ibidem, pp. 313 fig. 144, 314 fig. 145, 370-371.

[8] C.f. handwritten annotation on the back of the photograph of the painting PI 0013/5/2 no. 29189 in the Fototeca Zeri.

[9] C.f. handwritten annotation on the back of the photographs of the paintings in the Fototeca Zeri in the box of Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Modena; PI 00113/5/3 no. 29190 for the other painting.

[10] Florence, 11 June 2003, cat. no. 9, and Venice, 17 April 2005, cat. no. 31, pp. 78-79.

[11] In Le opere del ricordo. Opere d’arte dal XIV al XVI secolo appartenute a Carlo De Carlo, presentate dalla figlia Lisa, ed. A. Tartuferi, Florence 2007, pp. 32-37.

[12] “Saint Georges (École Florentine du 13ième Siècle) Gaddi Taddeo. Anciennement partie de un grand triptyque ex. coll. Demidoff 100”.

[13] Cf. De Divinis nominibus, IV, 7

[14] M. G. Mara, Raffaele, arcangelo, santo, in Enciclopedia Cat- tolica, X, Rome 1968, pp. 1366-1368.

[15] Cf. L. Link, The Devil. A Mask without a Face, London 1995, pp. 115-119.

[16] Cf. J. Baschet, Diavolo, in Enciclopedia dell’Arte Medievale,V, Rome 1994, pp. 644-650, and L. Link, The Devil cit.


A. Lenza, in Le opere del ricordo. Opere d’arte dal XIV al XVI secolo appartenute a Carlo De Carlo, presentate dalla figlia Lisa, Florence, 2007, pp. 11, 32-37

A. Tartuferi, in Le opere del ricordo. Opere d’arte dal XIV al XVI secolo appartenute a Carlo De Carlo, presentate dalla figlia Lisa, ed. A. Tartuferi, Firenze 2007, p. 11

A. Lenza, in The Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. Paintings and Sculptures from the Carlo De Carlo Collection and other provenance, Florence, 2011, pp. 142-151

November 25, 2022