This “The Tree of Life” tempera and gold painting on wood is by Pacino di Buonaguida, dating to about 1305 – 1310, and now it is in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
This masterpiece represents a typical Franciscan subject: the Genesis of creation and fall, with the Cross of Jesus as the Tree of Life symbolizing God‘s provision for immortality in the Garden of Eden. The centre of the painting depicts the crucified Christ, while the devil is depicted in the cave at the base, indicating that Christ‘s death is the result of Adam and Eve‘s sin.
From the trunk sprout twelve branches ( six branches from each side ), are to be read from left to right and from bottom to top, symbolizing the twelve Apostles of Jesus. From each branch hang in turn four medallions representing biblical events.
The art of painting has been regarded as one of the most complex and mind-breaking through all centuries. Through the simple gesture of stroking brushes and mixing colours, mankind has been able to convey such fascinating and composite abstract concepts, that truly explain the true magic and beauty of the arts.
There are many of these unbelievable phenomena, going through the history of pictorial arts, but one of the most important and spectacular ones is certainly ‘The tree of life’ by Pacino di Bonaguida. This art piece, tempera and gold painted on the panel by the Italian artist, can be dated back to 1305- 1310 and it is a remarkable example of the current century and during these days can be admired at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Consider spending a few minutes examining the myriad details in this painting.
Pacino di Bonaguida – Life and style of the artist
Pacino di Bonaguida is an Italian painter and miniaturist from Florence, that has been active during the 13th century in Tuscany. He is renowned as one of the exponents of the Italian Gothic painting movement, particularly of the Giotto school.
Unfortunately, there is not much evidence left to our knowledge about the artist or his artworks, but historians have discovered that he probably has been an apprentice of the Italian painter Tambo di Serraglio and was perceived greatly by the public during his artist career, since he has been multiple times defined as an artifex publicus in arte pictorum, meaning literally a public maker in the pictorial art. His art is characterized by a very archaic style, which can be strongly linked to the 13th-century style’s canons and influenced by the early works of Giotto.
His art pieces mainly revolved around the spiritual world and the Church environment. In fact, although there are not many pieces signed by himself, we can attribute to Bonaguida a great series of miniatures, such as the Antiphonary 3 in the Capitular Archives of Prato, and the Manuscript Plut. 3939 of the Laurentian Library in Florence, the Manuscript no. 1466 of the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence and the Missal of Orsanmichele.
The only signed work by the painter that we have received is a polyptych, that depicts the Crucifixion with Saints Nicholas, Bartholomew, Florentius and Luke, which bears the inscription with the painter’s name. However, Pacino di Bonaguida has been remembered by art historians for another wonderful example of Gothic art: the incredible masterpiece ‘The tree of life’.
The tree of life: history, meaning and stylistic features of the art piece
The ‘Tree of life’ is a large cusped panel, that has been commissioned by the Poor Clares of the Monticelli convent in Florence. However, it has been moved later in the centuries, up until the 18th century, when it has become part of the art pieces owned by the Montedomini family and, after it was rediscovered from its holdings, it has been moved to the Accademia Gallery, in 1849.
This altarpiece has been probably been influenced by the preaching of a very powerful friar of those years, Friar Ubertino da Casale, since it is very noticeable the clear representation in the painting of the Franciscan spiritual current at the times, by the subject of the cupel. In the artwork, there is also the clear presence of some figures, such as St. Clare of Assisi and probably the abbess of the Monticelli convent, which can also highlight the importance of the commissioner of the piece and the meaning behind it.
A very peculiar element of this work has been its dubious attribution since it has been only recently discovered and rightfully connected to its actual owner, Pacino di Bonaguida. In fact, art historians have debated over the centuries, not only about the rightful painter of the artwork but also about the historical period that it belonged to, because of its complex stylistic features. After long research and studies, the cupel has been attributed to its rightful owner, Pacino di Bonaguida, although some experts have highlighted the clear influences from other artistic movements, such as the contemporary miniature style influence of the medallions or the narration’s style, probably inspired by the Bologna and Rimini’s movements of those years.
The subject of the panel has been inspired by the pamphlet of meditations from Bonaventure of Bagnoregio’s Lignum Vitae since in those writings there is a clear fusion between the episode of Christ’s Crucifixion and the concept of the ‘Tree of Life’. In particular, the text refers to twelve ‘branches’ and forty-eight meditations, that have been faithfully represented in the panel.
At the centre, of course, there is the representation of Christ on the cross, deeply influenced by the current representations by Giotto, with minimal details. All around Christ’s figure, there are the branches and the medallions, represented as fruits, where we can see precisely painted different scenes of Christ’s life and his virtues. The only element that is standing out from these details is the branch on the high right, which represents Paradise. As it has been mentioned before, the panel overall can be recognized as a perfect example of the Late Gothic artistic movement, especially because of its rich dark colours, golden traits and the miniaturist style of the scenes.
The artwork beautifully represents the spiritualistic and deep concept of the Gothic art scene in Italy, during the 13th century and it is a beautiful depiction of the Catholic writings, with the meaning that is held, especially in that century and for the Gothic culture. While looking at this wonderful art piece, the observer can lose himself through the many details of the medallions and the lively scenes that are depicted, fully entering into the spiritualistic sense of meditation that the painter wanted to convey.
For this and many other reasons, the ‘Tree of Life’ holds a great artistic, historical and cultural value for the Italian Gothic era and it will keep fascinating the viewers for a long time in the future, just as it has done in the past.
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