Jordan Famularo


The national museum in Siena houses the remains of a painted reliquary cupboard made in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta (fig. 1). Two doors and part of their attached framework are all that survive from the original container. Vecchietta began work on the cupboard in 1445 and probably completed it late that year or in 1446.[1] The cupboard doors and frame were installed over a cavity in the south wall of a newly constructed sacristy in Santa Maria della Scala,[2] the church and hospital complex located on the south side of Siena’s Piazza del Duomo. The sacristy soon underwent more construction, during which the cupboard doors and frame were removed. The art-historical literature provides no indication that Vecchietta’s cupboard was reinstalled elsewhere in the church in the wake of renovations made to it in the second half of the fifteenth century. During the cupboard’s removal, its sides were damaged, but otherwise the surviving parts are in a good state of preservation.[3]

The cupboard was commissioned in the midst of a campaign led by Giovanni Buzzichelli, the rector of Santa Maria della Scala, to strengthen the hospital’s finances by attracting increased flows of pilgrims and pious donations. From its earliest documented history, Santa Maria della Scala served travelers and pilgrims. Siena was on the main route between Rome and places northward, whether northern Italy or transalpine locales.[4] Two pilgrimage halls were added to the building in 1325 and enlarged periodically; by 1399 there were beds enough to accommodate 130 adults.[5] By the time of Buzzichelli’s rectorship, 1433 to 1444, the hospital authorities decided to decorate the building with painted illustrations of past and present performances of good works at the hospital, which cared not only for pilgrims but for foundlings, the elderly, and the sick.[6] In the wake of these commissions for wall and ceiling paintings, Vecchietta received the commission for the reliquary cupboard. From the start, the hospital’s sacred relics were designated as the contents to be stored in the cupboard. In 1443, Pope Eugenius IV had bestowed enormous prestige on the relics by granting an indulgence for pilgrims who visited them.[7] The relic collection included a celebrated treasure of Byzantine objects purchased by the hospital in 1359; this Byzantine assemblage included a lectionary with precious-metal binding, reliquaries, and relics.

Figure 1. Vecchietta, reliquary cupboard’s exterior panels made for Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 1445-46. Tempera on panel, 273 x 187 cm. Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale n. 204.

The Byzantine objects were part of a larger westward movement of artifacts and people from the Eastern Mediterranean, flows that increased during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries due to the Ottoman Turks’ advances into the Byzantine Empire. These last centuries of the Byzantine Empire’s existence, before the final Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, are described as times of political fragility and economic scarcity for Byzantium. Such characterizations, whether deduced by modern scholars or recorded by historical witnesses themselves, imply a sense of diminished Byzantine power and efficacy in cross-cultural networks. Rather than a general notion of Byzantine decline, though, a more nuanced situation can be deciphered from the study of material objects, especially those that moved from Byzantium to other places, as Cecily Hilsdale demonstrates in her work on diplomacy-oriented art.[8] For the people who fled and the objects that traveled, one of the important landing points was the Italian peninsula. Italy received merchants, diplomats, scholars, and refugees bringing objects of various types. This article investigates the role of such objects in networks connecting Byzantium and Siena at two specific points in time: 1359, when the hospital received its Byzantine treasure; and the mid-1440s, when the reliquary cupboard was produced. For this objective, Actor-Network-Theory is a useful heuristic approach. Denying a hard division between the world of material things and the world of human associations, the approach highlights the interplay among people and objects inherent in the life cycles of cross-cultural networks.[9] Because the reliquary cupboard’s function was to house the hospital’s precious objects, its role as a mediator between its contents and its audience requires special attention. The Byzantine reliquaries, relics, and lectionary were matched with Vecchietta’s cupboard for their storage in the hospital sacristy, which was itself decorated with paintings on the walls and vault. Because the cupboard and sacristy space are framing elements, they reveal how a network gains coherence, and they deserve art-historical examination as much as the imported objects themselves.

Meriting consideration, therefore, is the cupboard’s role as a framing device for objects imported from Byzantium, a conceptual lens for understanding how Sienese patrons, artists, and beholders appreciated such imports within a cross-Mediterranean network. At the same time, the cupboard itself was framed by both the frescoes in the room surrounding it and by the historical context in which the relationships between fifteenth-century Byzantium and Italian cities came to the fore in matters of diplomacy, hierarchies and doctrine within the church, and cultural exchange. Of special importance is the religio-historical context involving the debates between the Latin and Greek churches that came to a head at the Council of Florence. The council began in 1439 and continued beyond the time of the cupboard’s manufacture. This article calls attention to a tension underlying the choices made concerning the design and placement of the cupboard: a tension deriving from a conflict between the desire to promote the aura of the cupboard’s precious contents from the East, on the one hand, and, on the other, the motivation to assert the superiority of Latin church doctrine over that of the Eastern church.

The Journey from Byzantium to Siena

The assemblage of objects purchased by the hospital was incredible in its time—the buyers committed to pay the huge sum of 3000 gold florins—and is unparalleled in its historical traceability. Its transfer from Byzantium to Italy is shown by textual evidence from 1357 and 1359. Documents establish it as the largest group of Byzantine objects to be imported into Italy with an intact provenance. The documents are copies made in 1680 from the originals, and they carry notarized affidavits attesting to their authenticity.[10] These documents locate the objects in Constantinople in 1357 and pinpoint their sale in 1359 in Venice to a syndic from Santa Maria della Scala. A 1357 statement was drawn up to identify the assemblage’s contents and to record that a Florentine merchant living in Constantinople had acquired them there. The document also certifies that the objects came from the Byzantine imperial palace, a certification also attested to by two of the document’s witnesses, both bishops who visited a member of the imperial family for her account of the objects’ provenance. The bishops relayed that the empress solemnly swore that the imperial family sold the objects out of necessity, and that the emperor had nothing more valuable. By May 28, 1359, the merchant had reached Venice with the objects, for on that date in Venice he entered into contract with the hospital syndic, Andrea Gratia. The price was to be paid at the rate of 100 gold florins every six months. Paul Hetherington’s analysis of the object lists in the 1357 and 1359 documents yields several macro-level conclusions: (1) not all the objects can be identified in repositories (museums, libraries) today, (2) the documents show a misunderstanding of Greek inscriptions on the artifacts, and (3) the assemblage expanded between 1357 and 1359, effectively giving some objects a spurious imperial provenance.[11] Based on her review of other original records in the Sienese state archives, Giovanna Derenzini establishes September 24, 1359 as the terminus ad quem for the treasure’s arrival in Siena.[12] The arrival, in other words, was more than 80 years before Vecchietta’s commission for the cupboard. The main query of this article asks why and how the cupboard re-framed the Byzantine objects in the 1440s.

The Reliquary Cupboard as Framing Device

The cupboard consists of a pair of rectangular doors hinged laterally and surmounted by a lunette. In the lunette, which remains in view whether the doors are open or closed, are six panels (see fig. 1). The pair of panels at the center—scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection—is flanked by a panel with the Annunciate Virgin on the right and the angel Gabriel on the left. At the extremes of the lunette are small seraph faces with wings. When the cupboard doors are in closed position, holy figures are compartmentalized into two horizontal registers of six panels each. The arrangement constitutes what Hendrik van Os calls “a kind of anthology from the local hagiography.”[13]


Figure 2. Vecchietta, reliquary cupboard’s interior panels made for Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 1445-46. Tempera on panel, 273 x 187 cm. Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale n. 204.

The interior panels (fig. 2) show eight scenes from the narrative of Christ’s Passion. From top to bottom and left to right on each door, these scenes are the Last Supper, Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet, Kiss of Judas, Christ before Caiaphas, Christ before Pilate, Flagellation, Mocking of Christ, and Way to Calvary.[14] The Passion scenes on the interior side of the doors and the Crucifixion and Resurrection scenes in the lunette may refer to the relics that were parts of the “Arma Christi” (the attributes of Christ’s victory on the Cross). The most important of such relics in the hospital’s possession was the relic of the Holy Nail.[15]

Though the cupboard doors were restored in 1984,[16] the decoration on the ribs between panels is difficult to interpret. Upon close inspection it is possible to see the remains of inscriptions in Latin identifying the figures. Four coats of arms also appear on the ribs. Three coats belong respectively to the hospital, the city, and the Sienese people. Scholars tend to agree that the fourth coat belongs to the rector Urbano di Pietro del Bello, who had taken office as rector in 1444.[17]

Hetherington has identified five reliquaries and one Greek manuscript in a gilt-silver cover that are described in the records from the 1359 purchase and that remain in the hospital’s possession today. These six objects may be cross-checked in a 1575 inventory, the earliest one surviving that post-dates the spectacular 1359 purchase.[18] Thus, in all likelihood Vecchietta’s cupboard housed these six objects, in addition to others, such as the relics of Mary’s veil and Christ’s Passion in the hospital’s possession.[19] The five Byzantine reliquaries identified by Hetherington are the following: first, a gold encolpion with an image of the Crucifixion on the obverse and, on the reverse, a cross with mounted gems and filigree (fig. 3); second, a gilt silver encolpion with an image of the Anastasis on one side and the Crucifixion on the other (fig. 4); third, a double-armed cross reliquary made from pierced gold and gold worked in repoussé; fourth, a silver-gilt reliquary showing St. John Chrysostom on the obverse and a Greek inscription on the reverse; and fifth, a capsule reliquary with Christ Pantokrator in an enamel on one side and, on the reverse side, an impression indicating that an enamel roundel was once affixed.[20]

Figure 3. Encolpion, c. 1300-50, Constantinople. Gold with enamels, precious stones, and filigree, 57 x 47 x 10 mm. Siena, Santa Maria della Scala.

Figure 4. Encolpion, c. 1300-25, Constantinople. Gilt silver, repoussé, 90 x 54 x 11 mm (excluding loop). Siena, Santa Maria della Scala.

The sixth object from the same purchase, the Greek manuscript, is now in the Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati, to which it was transferred from the hospital in 1786 (fig. 5).[21] The prominent position that it held within the group is clear from the fact that it is listed first in the 1359 sale record and subsequent Sienese documents.[22] On obverse and reverse, the manuscript’s thirteenth-century cover bears 30 enamel plaques composed of fully patterned designs, individual holy figures, or figural groups. The enamels include compositions important to the artistic tradition of the Eastern church—such as the Deesis, Anastasis, and the Virgin Hodegetria. The enamels with individual figures depict Eastern saints, archangels, and Christ Pantokrator.[23] The manuscript itself is a Greek lectionary for use with the rite of Constantinople and was composed in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. Unfortunately, the art historical literature contains reproductions and discussion of only a few of the illuminations, which hampers a full understanding of what the Sienese would have seen in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when they opened the book. Images of four miniatures of the evangelists are available in the literature. Presumably these miniatures were inspected and interpreted after the lectionary arrived in Italy: in the upper margins of the folios with these miniatures, Latin inscriptions in a fourteenth-century hand indicate the evangelists depicted. According to Giovanna Derenzini’s paleographic study, the lectionary also includes rich ornamentation in initial letters, which are either figurated or show architectural motifs, interlace, or knots.[24] At first thought, it seems interesting to compare the Byzantine treatment of individual painted figures, that is, the miniatures of the four evangelists, with Vecchietta’s treatment of individual painted figures on the exterior of the reliquary cupboard. But the more poignant evaluation compares the cupboard figures with the enameled figures on the gilt silver cover, specifically, the ornament that surrounds the figures. When viewed at close range, it is apparent that all of the gold backgrounds for the cupboard figures have incised foliate patterns (e.g., the background for St. Catherine’s panel, fig. 6). Such use of gilding is unusual within fifteenth-century Sienese painting leading up to the mid-1440s. In this period, if any patterning exists in the gilding, it ornaments halos and draperies, but not entire fields of gold background. To explain this discrepancy, one may turn to the reliquary cupboard’s role as a frame for Byzantine objects. The patterning on the reliquary cupboard mimics the effect of the filigree exhibited on the manuscript cover.[25] The imitation might make sense in light of Robert S. Nelson’s suggestion that the manuscript was valued during its first decades in Siena not so much for its Greek texts or evangelist portraits but for the high material cost of its gilt silver and enamel cover.[26] Two of the encolpion objects which arrived with it in Siena also had foliate patterns in filigree, which might have also inspired the incised foliate gilding on Vecchietta’s cupboard.


Figure 5. Lectionary cover (obverse), c. 1200-50, possibly Venice with assemblage of enamels from Byzantium. Gilt silver, repoussé with enamels, 362 x 303 mm. Siena, Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati, MS X.IV.1.

Figure 6. Detail of figure 1.
Figure 7. Detail of figure 1.
Figure 8. Detail of figure 1.

The cupboard’s exterior panels seem to imitate Byzantine models in an additional way: the geometric pattern strips on the cupboard ribs. They are very close in morphology and color to two strips of pattern under Christ’s feet in the central enamel scene of the Anastasis from the manuscript cover (cf. figs. 7 and 8). They also seem analogous to the finely patterned borders of author portraits in Byzantine manuscripts of the type that circulated in Italy and that became noticeably more numerous in central and northern Italy as a result of increased exchanges of goods and people with Byzantium.[27] Among ninth- and tenth-century Byzantine manuscript illuminations are borders composed of tiny tiled checkerboards and repeated blocks of cruciform tiles (for example, Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, Cod. Suppl. gr. 50, f. 106v).[28] In these examples it may be significant that the patterns are used to enframe single holy figures just as Vecchietta’s reliquary cupboard does.

In multiple ways, therefore, the cupboard imitates the surfaces of the precious objects from the East contained within it, specifically, their foliate metalwork patterns and their arrangement of holy figures in individuated compartments. This result is consonant with Hans Belting’s assessment of fittings and frames added to Byzantine reliquaries after their importation into the Latin West during the late Middle Ages. The importation of costly containers from Byzantium into Italy—namely, reliquaries and precious metal covers for manuscripts—resulted in the assimilation of their forms when new containers were made in Italy. A given Byzantine reliquary shared, according to Belting, “the aura of the relics and thus remained so vibrant that it, too, was reproduced.”[29] In this sense, Vecchietta’s cupboard qualifies as a reliquary in its own right. Therefore, again following Belting, the cupboard becomes an image of the objects contained within and gives them a visual identity that could be understood.[30] The cupboard’s power of articulation would be especially useful for viewers in fifteenth-century Siena, most of whom had little familiarity with what they saw on the Byzantine objects: images of Eastern saints, inscriptions rendered in the Greek language, and figural groups containing Byzantine narrative and devotional compositions. The cupboard, as an actor in the network connecting Byzantium and Siena, plays a role in the formation of new associations, a role made more visible to modern interpreters by virtue of the formidable spatial distance between the Sienese audience and the Byzantine makers of the objects stored in the cupboard.[31]

Why were the Byzantine objects stored in a cupboard painted with figures from a distinctly local, Sienese sacred history? This strategy makes the cupboard strikingly different from the reliquary cupboard painted three decades earlier for Siena Cathedral. The Cathedral cupboard exhibited a visibly straightforward correspondence between cupboard decoration and contents. Now disassembled, it had 32 compartments, each with a panel on which an angel holds a scroll identifying the compartment’s relic or the saint from whom the relic had come.[32] For the cupboard at Santa Maria della Scala, there is a disconnect between the identities of the figures on the cupboard’s exterior and the saintly bodies from which the Byzantine relics originated. This disconnect between frame and framed is overlooked in publications that emphasize the way in which the painted holy figures represent a particularly Sienese pantheon that the hospital authorities wanted to promote.[33] Though the cupboard’s exterior presents images of Sienese holy figures, the body of research by modern historians has established that the hospital possessed no relics of Sienese saints in the fifteenth century.[34] This fact deserves attention in light of the Sienese saints painted on Vecchietta’s reliquary cupboard. An alternative explanation better captures the distinctiveness of the cupboard’s relation to its contents: it attempts to bridge the translation between familiar and unfamiliar. The Sienese holy figures on the exterior serve to make legible the Byzantine objects on the interior. Simultaneously, the exotic Byzantine objects lend something of their awe-inducing mystery to the whole. For viewers unable to read Greek and perhaps only vaguely familiar with the significance of certain Eastern saints whose relics were stored in the cupboard, the images of Sienese blessed and saints could serve as an invitation to look and offer devotion. For just as Siena and its vicinity had been the geographic origin of exemplary figures worthy of emulation and veneration, so had the Eastern Mediterranean lands. The relics of Eastern saints were part of the hospital’s sacred treasure—a significant part, beginning with the 1359 purchase. One of the surviving reliquaries of the purchase, for instance, is inscribed in Greek with the words “The blessed golden relic of Chrysostom is hidden in gilded silver,” from which one can infer that the reliquary held a relic of St. John Chrysostom.[35] According to the 1359 sale record, the hospital purchased many relics of saints who had lived in the East and not Italy, such as Saints Pantaleon, Ermolaos, Macarius, and others.[36] Further, the relics pre-existent in the treasury—relics of Mary’s veil and Christ’s Passion—would take on greater aura through their proximity to the glittering precious-metal containers from the East.

In addition, the interior panels of the doors would have strengthened understanding of the identity of the relics. A reconstruction of what the viewer would see when the cupboard doors were open and a hypothetical diagram demonstrating a possible path of the viewer’s eye appear in figure 9. In the proposed scenario, the beholder begins his peripatetic viewing experience with the Annunciation, looking at Gabriel and across to the Virgin, then inward and to the right toward the first scene in the narrative of the Passion, which is the Last Supper. Then he looks around the right door and across the cavity where the reliquaries are sitting, perhaps stopping there for a moment, and then to the left door. As the viewer’s eye leaves the scene of the Way to Calvary and moves up to the Crucifixion, it might behold reliquaries in the interim. This diagram can only be speculative, but the arrangement of figures and scenes clearly mandates repeated visual transitions between the cupboard’s sacred contents and the elements serving as their frame when the doors were open. As the viewer’s eye moved between the precious containers sitting inside the cupboard and the painted scenes enclosing them, the painted scenes would help to identify the important relics. Multiplied alternations of sight between the painted Christological scenes and the stored Byzantine metalwork would have smoothed the distinction between the local and the far away, given legibility to the foreign, and endowed the humble with radiance.

Figure 9. Hypothetical diagram of viewer eye movement when reliquary cupboard in figure 1 is in open position.

The Reliquary Cupboard Enframed

The reliquary cupboard’s function as container was implicated in the viewer’s experience, but so was its status as that which was contained by the decorated surfaces of the sacristy. Though the sacristy’s frescoes have suffered much damage, it is still possible to interpret some of the decorative program from the surviving fragments and from fifteenth-century documents. Vecchietta and his workshop assistants began the frescoes on the walls and vault in the months immediately following the execution of the reliquary cupboard paintings.[37]

On the walls below the vault, the painters illustrated the 12 articles of faith as articulated in the Apostles’ Creed. The paintings are spread across a series of wall compartments arranged in pairs: lunettes where the wall meets the vault, and a rectilinear compartment below each lunette. An apostle with a text from the Apostles’ Creed appears on the right in any given lunette, as far as can be determined from the remains of the paintings.[38] Each lunette is matched with an Old Testament scene painted on the wall compartment directly below, so that 12 Old Testament prophets correspond typologically with the 12 articles of faith. The series of 12 article-apostle-prophet groupings is common to medieval northern art. This iconographic scheme is repeatedly observable in Sienese Creed illustrations; Colin Eisler suggests that the Sienese versions “were probably in large part determined by northern prototypes.”[39] Before important Sienese versions are compared with northern examples and with each other, though, it is necessary to explain why the articles of faith were a hot-button doctrinal issue during the period of Vecchietta’s activity, and the logical connection to how the articles were illustrated in art.

Controversy over the articles of faith was, apart from being an occasion for disagreement over the authority of the pope, the chief impetus for the schism between Western and Eastern churches. The eighth article of faith, concerning the Holy Spirit’s procession, was the focus of the doctrinal debate. The problem was the question of the Filioque (“and the Son”): the relationship of the Holy Spirit with God the Father and Christ the Son. Philip Schaff summarizes the problem as follows:

The Greek Church . . . emphasizing the Father as the only root and cause of the Deity, teaches the single procession . . . of the Spirit from the Father alone, which is supposed to be an eternal inner-trinitarian process (like the eternal generation of the Son). . . . The Latin Church, in the interest of the co-equality of the Son with the Father, and taking the procession [processio] is a wider sense, taught since Augustine the double procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son, and, without consulting the East, put it into the Creed.[40]

To the Nicene Creed, which was the compilation of articles of faith relied upon by the Eastern Church, the Latins wanted to add the phrase “and the Son” to the eighth article of faith so that it would read as follows: “And I believe in the Holy Ghost, The Lord, and Giver of life; Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; Who spake by the Prophets.”[41]

The debate was taken up at the Council of Ferrara, and it was the chief topic of discussion when the council moved to Florence—Siena’s neighbor—in February 1439. The first nine sessions of the Council of Florence were open to the public; afterward, the public sessions were closed at the request of the Greeks.[42] The Byzantine emperor and his entourage of ecclesiastics and scholars had traveled to Italy for the council meetings.[43] In June 1439 the Greek attendees declared that they recognized the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son as from one beginning and cause, and it seemed that the reconciliation between Eastern and Western churches was in sight. The Creed was sung in Florence in Latin and Greek, with the Filioque or its Greek equivalent added. However, the Greeks insisted that they had declared only their personal opinions and that they would need to return home to obtain the assent of their church assembled in synod.[44] They departed Florence in August 1439,[45] but Latin members of the council remained to promote reunion with other Eastern churches, for example, the churches of Armenia and Syria. From 1443 to its end in 1445, the acts of the council took place at Rome.[46] During this time, and through the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans, the Greeks who had returned home never produced the agreement to re-unify their church with the Latin church.

Despite the failure of the endeavor to end the schism, the Council of Florence had strengthened and extended cultural exchange between Byzantium and Italy from 1439 to 1445 and beyond. It had blanketed northern and central Italy in the doctrinal controversy over the procession of the Holy Spirit, and it also generated movement of people and objects from Byzantium to Italy as part of the emperor’s retinue.[47] This historical network provoked artistic responses.[48] Importantly, the doctrinal matters of the council seem to have taken visual form through the hands of artists in Florence and other Italian locales. Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper fresco (1447, Florence, S. Apollonia) might have been intented to visually affirm the Latin position in the Filioque debate. As John Spencer remarks, Christ’s unusual gesture, in which his index and middle fingers are entwined, might convey the inextricable conjunction of the Father and the Son from which the Holy Spirit processes.[49] In light of the connections between the Council of Florence and the arts, it is tempting to speculate about Vecchietta’s possible presence in Florence toward the beginning of the council. Between 1428 and 1439, no records place him in Siena, yet he returned to Siena bearing stylistic affinities with Florentine artists, especially Masolino.[50] The circumstances make it reasonable to hypothesize that Vecchietta witnessed in Florence the impact of Byzantine arrivals, whether people, objects, or ideas. Further, the one responsible for giving commissions to Vecchietta for the cupboard and sacristy paintings—Buzzichelli—knew art made in Florence during the time of the council. In the 1430s, Buzzichelli was in Florence regarding the affairs of San Martino alla Scala, a hospital dependent to his. It was during this time in Florence that he developed his ideas about the artistic style that he wanted to present in Siena. Through his contacts with Florence and its hospitals, Buzzichelli knew Domenico Veneziano’s frescoes for Sant’Egidio, the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Those frescoes were painted between 1439 and 1445.[51]

Returning to Vecchietta’s wall paintings in the hospital sacristy, the paintings must be situated historically. His paintings were iconographically innovative for Siena, and such innovation highlights the active roles of tangible things (i.e., the vault walls and the cupboard) in the Byzantium-Florence-Siena network.[52] Vecchietta’s precedents in Siena for painting the articles of faith were a painting program by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the chapter house of S. Agostino (fourteenth century, now destroyed), Domenico di Niccolò’s intarsia stalls in the Palazzo Pubblico chapel (1415-28), and Benedetto di Bindo’s painted panels for the Cathedral sacristy (1411-12). Nothing is known about Lorenzetti’s illustration of the Holy Spirit’s procession. Benedetto di Bindo’s and Domenico di Niccolò’s programs depict the Nicene Creed—their paintings, that is, follow the creed of Eastern origin, though painted in the West. During the time of their creation, a few decades before Vecchietta’s work, these paintings might have been positioning the Nicene Creed as an anciently grounded formula of belief that needed reaffirmation in a time of upheaval within the Western church.[53] By the time of Vecchietta’s Creed cycle in the hospital sacristy, the Eastern church had changed formidably in the eyes of Western church congregants: the Eastern church’s antiquity had to be reckoned against its perceived incorrect position in the Filioque debate. For this reason, I argue, Vecchietta (with or without his client, Buzzichelli) made an iconographic decision that broke with Sienese precedent.

Figure 10. Vecchietta and assistants, Eighth Article of Faith (lunette), Glory of the Temple (bottom rectangle), 1449. Fresco. Siena, Santa Maria della Scala, old sacristy.11
Figure 11. Vecchietta and assistants, Eighth Article of Faith, c. 1450. Fresco. Siena, Cathedral Baptistery, vault.

The iconographic anomaly appears in the Pentecost lunette representing the eighth article of faith, the clause about belief in the Holy Spirit (fig. 10). It depicts the Trinity in a round mandorla above an altar. To the left of the altar is a male saint, perhaps St. Peter. The other apostles can be made out standing in the niche and behind St. Peter. Upon them descends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. What is unusual is the symmetrical pairing of the Father and Son figures on either side of the dove. In other extant Sienese depictions of the eighth article of faith, Domenico di Niccolò’s (1415-28) and Benedetto di Bindo’s (1411-12), there is no such conspicuous emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s double descent from both the Father and the Son. Vecchietta and Buzzichelli might have known of two options in northern medieval models for the eighth article’s illustration: (1) the Holy Spirit as a dove, moving downward toward the earthly realm but not pictured with any other part of the Trinity, and (2) the dove positioned midway between God the Father and God the Son.[54] Vecchietta’s painted vault for the Siena Cathedral baptistery (fig. 11) follows model (1) and, given its close chronological proximity to his paintings for the hospital sacristy, strongly suggests that there was knowledge of both models and a choice made between them. At the Cathedral baptistery, beginning in about 1450,[55] Vecchietta and his assistants painted the dove of the Holy Spirit without depiction of the Father or Son. Instead, the dove descends by itself in a ray of glory from a garland held by two angels in the vault’s decorated border. The difference between Vecchietta’s two representations of the Holy Spirit, I would argue, is attributable to the presence of Byzantine objects in the sacristy at Santa Maria della Scala and the absence of comparable objects in the baptistery at the Cathedral. It is reasonable to contend that the framing of the reliquary cupboard at Santa Maria della Scala with an image clearly demonstrating the double procession of the Holy Spirit is a response to the Filioque doctrinal debate. The debate had consumed the Latin and Greek churches’ energies in the years leading up to the conception of the decorative program for the sacristy, and it continued without a resolution until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Accordingly, the sacristy wall makes a particularly strong expression of doctrinal position. One would be justified in arguing that the strength of doctrinal expression is meant as a counterweight, guide, and gloss for the aura of the Byzantine sacred objects contained in the room.

Vecchietta’s reliquary cupboard stood in a mediating position, both spatially and conceptually. Oriented in space between the stored Byzantine objects and the fresco program, it served as a node to aid the viewer’s interpretation of the objects. Its mediating function manifests visually by way of (1) formal elements shared between the cupboard and its contents, and (2) presentation of narrative scenes that urge repeated movements of the eye between Byzantine objects stored in the cupboard and illustrations of well-known Gospel accounts on its doors. To discern the cupboard’s importance, Actor-Network-Theory proves to be a fruitful heuristic measure by underlining the need to investigate the co-constructive role of objects amid the flux of cross-cultural networks. In the wake of dispute between the Eastern and Western churches, the cupboard’s placement under a fresco program with a stark visual expression of the Latin Filioque position introduces a tension into the display of its Byzantine contents. The cupboard is an object with two faces: its design and placement make evident a negotiation between the desire to promote the aura of the cupboard’s precious contents from the East on the one hand, and, on the other, the motivation to subordinate the Eastern church in light of the schism between churches that was so conspicuous at the time and place of the cupboard’s manufacture. Consequently, the Byzantium-Siena network is better understood through analysis of framing acts, which perform intercultural translations tangibly and conceptually.

Jordan Famularo is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she specializes in the history of Italian art 1400-1600. She holds a BA in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


[1] Hendrick W. Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy of the Siena Hospital Church, trans. Eva Biesta (Maarssen, the Netherlands: Gary Schwartz; New York: Abner Schram, 1974), 17.

[2] Daniela Gallavotti Cavallero and Andrea Brogi, eds., Lo Spedale Grande di Siena: Fatti urbanistici e architettonici del Santa Maria della Scala (Florence: La casa Usher, 1987), 173; Ashley Jane Elston, “Storing Sanctity: Sacristy Reliquary Cupboards in Late Medieval and Renaissance Italy” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 2011), 129.

[3] Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 11, 18; Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, Lo Spedale, 173.

[4] The oldest documentary evidence of the hospital (March 29, 1090) calls the venue xenodochium et hospitalis (“hostel and hospital”). For the history of Santa Maria della Scala, see E. Cotturi, “L’ospedale di S Maria della Scala di Siena,” Ospedali d’Italia Chirurgia 3 (1960): 647-51; P. Torriti, Il pellegrinaio nello spedale di Santa Maria della Scala a Siena (Siena: Lions Club, 1987); Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, eds., Lo Spedale Grande di Siena; J. H. Baron, “The Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 1090-1990,” British Medical Journal 301 (December 22-29, 1990): 1449-51.

[5] Baron, “The Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala,” 1451.

[6] For these narrative paintings, see Keith Christiansen, Laurence B. Kanter, and Carl Brandon Strehlke, Painting in Renaissance Siena, 1420-1500, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), 47, 256.

[7] Elston, “Storing Sanctity,” 126, 128 and 128n58.

[8] Cecily Hilsdale, Byzantine Art and Diplomacy in an Age of Decline (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Hilsdale’s bibliography provides a recent and robust collection of sources on the notion of decline in the Late Byzantine period (1261-1453), only a few of which are cited here: Alice-Mary Talbot, “Revival and Decline: Voices from the Byzantine Capital,” in Helen C. Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), exh. cat. (New Haven: Yale University Press, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004), 17-25; Slobodan Ćurčić and Doula Mouriki, eds., The Twilight of Byzantium: Aspects of Cultural and Religious History in the Late Byzantine Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991); Ihor Ševčenko, “The Decline of Byzantium Seen through the Eyes of its Intellectuals,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 15 (1961): 167-86; Anthony Kaldellis, “Historicism in Byzantine Thought and Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 61 (2007): 1-24.

[9] Cues from Actor-Network-Theory in this article rely primarily on Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); for objects as actors, see 72-76. For criticism and development of Actor-Network-Theory during the 1980s and 1990s, see John Law and John Hassard, eds., Actor Network Theory and After (Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999).

[10] The documents are now located in the Archivio Spedale of Santa Maria della Scala, vol. 120, Archivio di Stato, Siena. My summary of the documents relies on the work of two authors: Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 18-30 and Giovanna Derenzini, “Esame paleografico del codice X.IV.1 della Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati e contributo documentale alla storia del ‘Tesoro’ dello spedale di Santa Maria della Scala,” Annali della facoltà di lettere e filosofia, Università di Siena 8 (1987): 56-76. Each article publishes transcriptions and summaries while correcting the earlier interpretations of scholars who made mistakes in their discussions of the documents.

[11] Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 21-23.

[12] Derenzini, “Esame paleografico,” 76.

[13] In the top register, from left to right, are St. Ansano, St. Ambrogio Sansedoni, St. Bernardino (who at the time of painting was not yet canonized), the blessed Agostino di Novello bestowing a mantle upon a rector (probably Urbano di Pietro del Bello), and the blessed Andrea Gallerani, followed by St. Savino on the far right. On the bottom register from left to right are St. Vittorio, St. Catherine (also not yet canonized at the time of painting), the blessed Pier Pettinaio, the blessed Sorore, St. Galgano, and St. Crescenzio. Making their appearance, then, are all four patron saints of Siena (Sts. Vittorio, Ansano, Savino, and Crescenzio); members of Siena’s regular clergy (the blessed Agostino Novello, St. Ambrogio Sansedoni, and St. Bernardino); and founders of Sienese institutions (the blessed Sorore, who according to legend founded the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in the ninth century, and Andrea Gallerani). The remaining painted figures are the blessed Pier Pettinaio, whose death day was made a yearly solemn celebration in Siena beginning in 1328, and St. Galgano, who was memorialized at a monastery named after him and located in the Sienese countryside near Chiusdino. For identifications of the figures, see van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 18-22. Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi make the same identifications, except the figure at bottom right, whom they identify as S. Giuliano without explanation. See Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, Lo Spedale, 173. Van Os’s inclusion of St. Vittorio instead seems to make more sense because it completes the group of four city patron saints.

[14] Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, Lo Spedale, 173.

[15] Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 18.

[16] Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, Lo Spedale, 173.

[17] Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 18.

[18] Elston, “Storing Sanctity,” 140.

[19] Gallavotti Cavallero and Brogi, Lo Spedale, 80.

[20] Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 9-18.

[21] Robert S. Nelson, “The Italian Appreciation and Appropriation of Illuminated Byzantine Manuscripts, ca. 1200-1450,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995): 227.

[22] Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 23, 29.

[23] It appears that the enamels were not all made at the same time for the same object but were collected into an assemblage and then applied to the gilt silver cover. Scholars disagree with regard to whether the manufacture of the cover and the affixing of the enamels occurred in Byzantium or Italy. For a review of proposed provenances, see Paul Hetherington, “Byzantine Enamels on a Venetian Book-Cover,” Cahiers archéologiques 27 (1978): 117, 123-27, with bibliography.

[24] Giovanna Derenzini, “Esame paleografico del codice X.IV.1 della Biblioteca Comunale degli Intronati e contributo documentale alla storia del ‘Tesoro’ dello spedale di Santa Maria della Scala,” Annali della facoltà di lettere e filosofia, Università di Siena 8 (1987): 48, 55.

[25] Elston has pointed to the likelihood of imitation in such terms, but she does not elaborate on the significance that might lie behind the act of imitation. Elston, “Storing Sanctity,” 140.

[26] Nelson, “The Italian Appreciation,” 216.

[27] Nelson, “The Italian Appreciation,” 221.

[28] Kurt Weitzmann, Die Byzantinische Buchmalerei 9. und 10. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1935).

[29] Hans Belting, The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages: Form and Function of Early Paintings of the Passion (New Rochelle, NY: A.D. Caratzas, 1990), 210.

[30] Belting, The Image and its Public, 212-13.

[31] Within Actor-Network-Theory, Latour observes that spatial distance enhances the visibility of material objects’ associability with social ties. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 80.

[32] Elston, “Storing Sanctity,” 29.

[33] Elston, “Storing Sanctity,” 113-58, Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 18.

[34] Notably, the hospital’s 1575 inventory mentions no relics of Sienese saints. Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 18. Van Os publishes the inventory in ibid., 81-88.

[35] Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 16.

[36] Hetherington, “A Purchase of Byzantine Relics and Reliquaries,” 29-30.

[37] Van Os attributes the vault frescoes to Vecchietta and the wall frescoes to both Vecchietta and his workshop assistants. Vecchietta included his name in the dedicatory inscription on the short north wall, and the payment records reflect two phases of payment to him. The earlier payment is for the vault, completed by 1446. The later payment in 1449 is for the walls, and the frescoes were completed in that year. Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 11, 31, 54; Gabriele Donati, “L’opera del Vecchietta per la Sagrestia Vecchia di Santa Maria della Scala,” in Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello: le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento, ed. Max Seidel et al. (Milan: 24 Ore Cultura, 2010), 306.

[38] Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 34.

[39] Colin Eisler, “The Golden Christ of Cortona and the Man of Sorrows in Italy (Part 1),” Art Bulletin 51 (1969): 115.

[40] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History & Critical Notes, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 1:26.

[41] Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 1:27-28.

[42] L. Van der Essen, “The Council of Florence” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton, 1909), accessed October 31, 2013,

[43] Joseph Gill, The Council of Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 88-90.

[44] Van der Essen, “The Council of Florence.”

[45] Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), 530.

[46] Van der Essen, “The Council of Florence.”

[47] The exhibition catalogue Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), cited first in n10 above, gathers many essays and object entries to show the circulation of people and things facilitated by the Council of Florence. See Alice-Mary Talbot, “Revival and Decline: Voices from the Byzantine Capital,” 17-25; Anna Ballian, “Liturgical Implements,” 117-24; Maria Georgopoulou, “Venice and the Byzantine Sphere,” 489-94; Robert S. Nelson, “Byzantium and the Rebirth of Art and Learning in Italy and France,” 515-23. For books belonging to the Byzantine emperor’s retinue in attendance at the council, see Nelson, “The Italian Appreciation,” 221-27. For the creation of art in response to the constellation of people and objects brought together by the council, see n48.

[48] Numerous artworks made in Italy portray the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. Now-famous examples are Pisanello’s sketchbook studies, drawn from life in Ferrara or Florence, of John VIII Palaiologos and his retinue; Pisanello’s medal of c. 1438-39; and the sculpted bust of 1439 attributed to Filarete or Donatello. For these artworks see the entries in Evans, ed., Byzantium: Faith and Power: Carmen Bambach, “Studies of Emperor John VIII Palaiologos and His Retinue,” 318A,B, 527-32; Maria Georgopoulou, “Portrait Bust of John VIII Palaiologos,”, cat. 320, 534; and Stephen K. Scher, “Medal of John VIII Palaiologos”, cat. 321, 535-46.

[49] John Richard Spencer, Andreal del Castagno and His Patrons (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 110.

[50] Giorgio Vigni, Lorenzo di Pietro, detto il Vecchietta (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1937), 11.

[51] Christiansen, Kanter, and Strehlke, Painting in Renaissance Siena, 48; Baron, “The Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala,” 1451; Diana Norman, Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena (1260-1555) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 190.

[52] Latour emphasizes that the study of innovations in artists’ workshops makes it easier to discern objects’ associations with both social ties and other objects. Latour, Reassembling the Social, 80.

[53] This is the explanation for Benedetto di Bindo’s panels in John Gregory, “The Credo of the Siena Cathedral Sacristy (1411-12),” Renaissance Studies 12, no. 2 (1998): 221-27. As circumstantial evidence for his argument, Gregory cites Sienese involvement in the papal schism negotiations from which John XXIII emerged over the papal contenders Gregory XII and Benedict XIII as well as the excommunication and execution of John Hus. Therefore, Gregory states, the thematic choice of the Nicene Creed implies emphasis on ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority in a period of heightened uncertainty.

[54] An example of iconographic model (1) appears in the “Howard Psalter,” made in East Anglia c. 1308-40 (London, British Library, Arundel MS 83, fol. 12r). An example of model (2) appears in a pair of two late thirteenth-century folios in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris (Ms. Lat. 11907, ff. 231rv-232rv). Robert Scheller suggests that the Paris folios were designed as models for wall paintings. Robert W. Scheller, Exemplum: Model-Book Drawings and the Practice of Artistic Transmission in the Middle Ages (ca. 900-ca. 1450) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995), 199. For Creed iconography in general see Gertrud Schiller, “Das Glaubensbekenntnis – Credo,” in Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, vol. 4, part 1, (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus Gerd Mohn, 1976), 134-47; Hendrick van Os, “Credo, s.v.” in Lexicon der christlichen Ikonographie, ed. Engelbert Kirschbaum, vol. 1 (Rome: Herder, 1968), columns 461-64.

[55] A February 1450 document records a payment to Vecchietta “per dipegnare la Chiesa predecta, o cappella di sancto Giovanni ne le volte o facce e pareti di essa.” Van Os, Vecchietta and the Sacristy, 65.