Anonymous Siennese Master (Attributed to Benedetto di Bindo)
The structure of this chest is simple, with no complicated building details, as was the norm in the Western Mediterranean area in that period. It is made of large wood panels with dovetail joints at the corners, and the convex shape of the lid has been obtained by juxtaposing a number of boards sawn in a slight curve. In this way it is possible to obtain ample homogeneous surfaces, adequate for decorating in one piece without the limitations imposed by a complicated construction.
The decoration with gilded gesso on red bole spreads across a canvas sealed with a strong size, adhered to the whole external surface, on which the decorative finish can be fixed better than on bare wood. This gesso, made with lime sulphate (Bomford, 1995), was commonly used in Florence and Siena at the end of the Middle Ages, both in furniture and in the gilded backgrounds of paintings. It was laid in several coats which were burnished in order to give them a soft texture, upon which reliefs (pastiglia) of the same material were added with a flat brush, with a dripping procedure, which were then shaped into a precise form once they were dry.
The composition of the front panel is structured in three areas separated by Salomonic columns with leafy capitals, usual in 14th-century Tuscan decorations, and by borders in which verses from the Creed alternate with decorative letters, enclosing multi-petal rosettes inside which are circles painted in tempera with motifs related to the aforementioned prayer, and which have been identified by Freuler (1991) as God Almighty, God maker of heaven and earth, and Christ, His only son, stigmatised and surrounded by seraphs. Of a style related to Simone Martini and his followers, their authorship had provoked a heated debate. Pope-Hennessy (1939) related them with the frescoes of the sacristy in Siena cathedral, and directed by Benedetto di Bindo (documented between 1411 and 1417) with the collaboration of a group of painters known as the Masters of Siena Cathedral; later, Feulner (1941) attributed them to Taddeo di Bartolo, a hypothesis which was rejected by Freuler, who finally ascribed them to Bindo. This artist worked on the Duomo sacristy, not only on the aforementioned frescoes (between 1411 and 1412), but also on other works: he was paid for unidentified works in the spring of 1412, immediately after which he undertook the decoration of the Arliquiera, a cupboard for relics with nine panels adorned with themes from the Creed, now at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Freuler, who supported this hypothesis, concluded that the document dated spring 1412 referred to this chest. The side panels have the same rosettes with inscribed shields and purely ornamental lettering.
The chest is part of a set sharing the same characteristics, in which figurative scenes are replaced by shields, all of which were produced in the same Sienese workshop. They all present large rosettes on the front panel, a usual theme in the last quarter of the 14th century in Tuscany, which can be seen for instance in the chest at the foot of the bed in the scene representing Joseph's dream in the frescoes of the central nave in the Duomo in San Gimignano by Taddeo di Bartolo; they all rest on feet joined by low mixtilinear arches, and have inscriptions. The most important examples can be found in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein (Vaduz), in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the Museo d'Arti Applicate in Milan and in Vienna. The chests in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection and in Vaduz are the ones of the highest quality, and we know that they were produced for important Siennese institutions (the latter bears the coat of arms of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena), which is why they were probably the first ones to be made. They have a more complex structure, a more rigorous composition -the dividing columns mark the compositional rhythm- and their decorative elements are traditional. The ones in London and Milan -the former with the Creed and the latter with verses from the Gospels and a moral commentary of them- present a less complex structure and a flatter and more ornamental decoration, in which the pillars are merely another element rather than a structuring component, from which we can deduce that they are variations of a model which had been well received.
Sofía Rodríguez Bernis