Images of the desert, religious renewal and the eremitic life in late-medieval Italy: a thirteenth-century tabernacle in the National Gallery of Scotland
Hope-Jones, Amelia Jennifer
The image of the desert at the heart of this thesis is contained within a late thirteenth-century Italian tabernacle, on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. It is a striking and intricate narrative painting, showing numerous scenes of eremitic life and death in a mountainous desert landscape. The central panel of the Edinburgh Tabernacle represents the earliest surviving example of ‘eremitic landscape’ painting in Italy (dated to some fifty years earlier than the well-known Lives of the Anchorites fresco in the Camposanto of Pisa). It contains a unique combination of iconography that draws from both East and West. Yet it has been largely overlooked in the extensive literature on Italian panel painting of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and its patronage, origins and intended function are not well understood. This thesis examines the Edinburgh Tabernacle in some depth, drawing on recent technical analysis prompted by my research. Seen as part of a wider cultural and religious context, it emerges as an object of considerable artistic and historical significance. The tabernacle provides persuasive visual evidence for a profound interest in the desert among the increasingly urban landscape of late thirteenth-century Italy. In addition, it raises important questions concerning the legacy of the Desert Fathers in late-medieval Italy, the spirituality of the recently-formed Mendicant Orders, and the relationship between Italian religious life and the monastic culture of Byzantium. This study pursues the impulse that lies behind the making of the Edinburgh Tabernacle. It explores connections between the tabernacle, the religious context from which it emerged, and a number of eremitic landscape paintings made in central Italy for different patrons between c.1330-1500. In doing so, it aims to shed new light on the function of the object, and the significance of the eremitic life, in late-medieval Italy.