A Miracle of St. Sylvester (oil on panel, 1450s) by Pesellino, Francesco di Stefano (1422-57)
This charming painting depicts a legendary story from the life of St Sylvester Pope from 314-335. Tradition holds that it was this pope who baptised the Emperor Constantine. This small panel originally formed part of the lower section of an altarpiece. Our painting and two other works featured scenes from the life of St Sylvester. In this story we learn how the Pope seen kneeling at left miraculously brings an ox back to life. Through this healing act the Pope defeated a magician in a contest before the Emperor and his mother Helena, whom we recognize as the crowned woman seated at right. The figure of the Emperor Constantine, at the far left opposite his mother, has been omitted from this reproduction. Pesellino locates the story in a space that features the classically-inspired architectural style of the early renaissance. Figures appear to move and occupy space according to the laws of perspective. Pesellino achieves the illusion of depth by showing the grey tiles on the floor appearing to gradually recede. Within this airy, evenly-lit loggia the central characters respond to the events with restrained elegance. The group of young men standing at the left wear expensive dress, typical of wealthy Florentines at this time. The magician identified by his extravagant red hat and pink mantle registers dismay at the animals’ return to life. His gestures signal both shock and uncertainty. Others, like the learned older man seated next to the Empress Helena express amazement. However, as the Empress Helena lifts her hand to her breast this symbolic gesture signals to the viewer the deeper meaning of this story. She alone acknowledges in her reaction to Pope Sylvester’s prayer, acceptance and conversion.
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