Arts of Europe

St. Catherine

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1320
Ugolino di Nerio (Ugolino da Siena) (Italy, active 1317–27)
Tempera, gold leaf on panel
21 3/4 x 12 3/4 inches
Gift of Ellnora D. Krannert 1965-16-4

This early-fourteenth-century panel painting is attributed to Ugolino di Nerio (also known as Ugolino da Siena), a Sienese artist active in the first half of the fourteenth century. Born into a family of painters, Ugolino may have trained under Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna; some scholars believe that Ugolino assisted Duccio on his renowned Maestà altarpiece (1308–11). Ugolino's best-known commission was the high altarpiece for the Florentine church of Santa Croce, a work now divided among several American and European collections.

The Krannert Art Museum panel was once part of an altarpiece, the central panel of which probably represented the Madonna and Child. Various specialists have attempted to reconstruct the original work from material and stylistic evidence, but to date no single version has been universally accepted. This particular panel represents one of Ugolino's early commissions as a master in his own right. Its media and support—egg tempera and gold leaf on wood—were widely used for devotional works in the later Middle Ages.

The austerity and emotional depth of Ugolino's rendition of the popular Saint Catherine are characteristic of his work. Catherine's almond-shaped eyes and rounded, elongated facial features and hands are typical of other Italian work of this period, which ultimately derived from Byzantine art. Although sometimes portrayed with a wheel of torture, here Catherine displays the martyr's palm leaf, symbolizing her victory over death. The combination of rich colors and minimal but exquisitely fine detail, as in Catherine's tooled gold halo, makes this work particularly striking.

Text by Charlotte Bauer, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008