One of the most iconic works in the National Gallery of Umbria is the Polyptych of Saint Anthony, an emblematic masterpiece that encapsulates many elements of fifteenth-century culture.
This great altarpiece was commissioned by the Franciscan Tertiaries of the convent of Saint Anthony of Padua for the church outside their convent at Porta Sant’Angelo and was completed as a consequence of a financial grant made by the Municipality of Perugia in 1468. This religious community was led at the time by Ilaria Baglioni, the daughter of Braccio, the Lord of Perugia, a not entirely insignificant detail for the choice of the prestigious artist.
The complex structure of this altarpiece, with two predellas on four registers, was designed to fit the space of the church’s presbytery. When the convent became definitively cloistered in 1572, the central panel of the upper predella (since lost) was removed and replaced with a metal grid that enabled the Poor Clares to attend the celebration of the eucharist from the secluded zone of the choir.
The iconographic choices made for this painting are closely related to the Franciscan order, whose representative saints (Anthony of Padua, Francis of Assisi and Elisabeth of Hungary) are depicted in the central register, together with the Madonna and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist. Below, the smaller panels of the predella illustrate miraculous events attributed to the three Franciscan saints.
The work marks the fundamental passage from painting with tempera to painting with oil, which Piero della Francesca had adopted after coming into contact with Flemish art, primarily when he attended the court of Urbino. This new medium enabled him to achieve crystalline transparencies and very intense luminous effects, as in his splendid nocturnal painting of The Stigmata of Saint Francis.
The use of the method of the linear perspective with a central vanishing point, which gives structure to the space in each compartment, achieves its culmination in the Annunciation at the top of the polyptych. The colonnade at the centre of the scene is a perfect expression of the mathematical principles described by the artist himself around 1475 in his treatise De prospectiva pingendi (On the Perspective of Painting).