I love to discover old painters that I don’t know about. This time I came across one when researching a class on Piero della Francesca. In his excellent book Piero della Francesca and the Early Renaissance, Philip Hendy mentioned a fourteenth-century painter, the Master of the St George Codex, whose colour tones influenced Masaccio, and probably indirectly Piero himself.
The Master took his name from an illuminated Missal, known as the St George Codex (Rome, Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica). Until the early 1950s, he was thought to have been trained by a Sienese master, specifically, a follower of Simone Martini. The codex is gorgeous; the artist excelled in his scene of St George vanquishing the dragon. I particularly like the naturalism: the lake with birds and other creatures who seem oblivious of the conflict raging on the other side of heir aquatic home. Here’s a page showing the scene; what is known as a “complex” treatment of the story, complete with buildings, landscape and spectators, as opposed to a “simple” treatment with just knight and dragon.
St George Codex Master, (active first half of fourteenth-century), Codex of St George (Folio 85r), 1325-30, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican, Tempera and gold on parchment, 373 x 263 mm.
Here’s a detail.
The text , on 'The Miracles and Martyrdom of St George' was written by Cardinal Giacomo Stefaneschi'. Here, the St George Codex Master shows him at work; note the wonderfully witty detail of the cardinal’s hat at the top.
|St George Codex Master, (Folio 17r), Cardinal Jacopo Stefaneschi writing his codex, 1325-30, Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican, tempera and gold on parchment|
It used to be believed that the George and the Dragon was based on a fresco by Martini. The fresco, painted for a church in Avignon, is sadly lost; but a drawing owned by another cardinal- Cardinal Barberini in the seventeenth-century- has been connected with both fresco and the codex illustration.
Unknown artist, possibly trecento, fourteenth-century, St George and the Dragon, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Barb. lat. 4426, fol. 36.
I came across a good article written by a scholar who has a PhD on the St George Codex Master. After examining the claim that the Barberini drawing is a copy of the lost Simone fresco, John Howett wisely concludes that there isn’t enough evidence to back up such a claim. As to the question wether the St George Codex Master knew Martini’s fresco; though they both may have derived their encounter from a common source, the Master’s treatment of George and the Dragon is far more original. As I said before, it was inventive of him to imbue his scene with natural history, which suggests a more progressive and scientific approach to the story. I can see our lesser-known master anticipating the kind of treatment of the subject by artists of the next century, like Paolo Uccello for example. His version in Paris takes the “complex” St George and the Dragon to an advanced level, where perspective seems more the object of his attention than the battle itself.
|Paolo Uccello, St George and the Dragon, 1458-60, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, oil on canvas, 52 x 90 cm.|
And while we’re chasing the dragon, here’s another example of a perspectival dragon battle, worked out meticulously by Vittore Carpaccio.
|Vittore Carpaccio, The Triumph of St George, 1502, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence|
I’ve wandered away from the Master of the St George Codex, so let’s return to him by way of two colourful panels from his late period. These are owned by the Metropolitan Museum, New York and are the main subject of Howett’s article. The first time I saw reproductions of these I immediately thought of the Sienese genius, Duccio. However, it’s probably the case that our Master was of Florentine extraction, knowledgeable about Giotto and his workshop, though there are Sienese elements in his art. I’ve no idea of the purpose of these panels, but I think the Master of the St George Codex creates very beautiful images. If you’re interested in a list of his paintings, it shouldn’t take you long to learn them- his CR runs to half a page.
Though strictly speaking, I’m supposed to be teaching Sienese painting this week, I can’t resist slipping some of this wonderful miniaturist's art into my lecture, even though he seems to be more closely connected to Florence than Siena. His crucifixion is a much quieter, dignified treatment than the likes of Martini who tend to pile on the agony and emotion.
Philip Hendy, Piero della Francesca and the Early Renaissance, New York: Macmillan, 1968.
John Howett, “Two Panels by the Master of the St George Codex in the Cloisters,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 11 (1976), pp. 85-102.