Journey of the Magi by SASSETTA (Sienese School)
IN 1450, Stefano di Giovanni, called Sassetta, painting a great fresco from
a high platform above the Porta Romana of his native town, contracted an
illness that ended his career.
“Stabbed through and through by the sharp
southwest wind,” as he expressed it, the man who had delighted his contem
poraries with a picture of St. Francis Wedded to Poverty himself died in
poverty, leaving a family without subsistence, and a name that lay buried and
forgotten until the beginning of the present century.
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Today, reincarnated, he
has passed once more into the magic circle of Sienese painting-the artist
whose calm, unaffected holiness redeemed the declining medieval style from
elaborate trivialities and neurotic dreams.
When Sassetta was commissioned to execute a certain picture, he said that
“he would paint it in fine gold, ultramarine, and other colors, employing all
his subtleties of craft and spirit to make it as beautiful as he could.”
declaration is particularly applicable to the Journey of the Magi, a remark
able combination of craft and spirit. These figures, apparently so thought
lessly disposed, so spontaneously proceeding, were actually grouped with
the utmost deliberation, for Sassetta worked slowly, planning his effects thor
oughly before he allowed his imagination to take flight.
His line is clean and
sharp, his colors of transparent delicacy, his spirit that of pure and glad hu
manity. He saw no incongruity between the Biblical subject and the way he
depicted it: the Wise Men of the East are conceived as Sienese horsemen;
three marching figures might well be three happy townsmen; the hard blue
sky, the bleak hills, and the bright costumes, like those in many Sienese paint
ings, suggest the decorative schemes of Oriental art; and the Star of Bethle
hem, as big as a sunburst, is manifestly closer and more real to him than the
line of flying geese.
He was concerned with the presentation of a truth, some
thing so actual and so near at hand that he could paint it with naive infor
mality, but with no trace of levity. Sassetta was not a great dramatic force,
but he was one of the noblest and tenderest of the Sienese masters.