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Title Joachim in the Wilderness
Alternative Title David Guarding his Flocks
Collection Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Artist Attributed to Delli, Dello di Niccolò (Italian sculptor, painter, ca.1403-ca.1470)
Attributed to Matteo di Giovanni (Italian painter, ca. 1430-1495, active in Siena)
Previously attributed to school of Pesellino, Francesco (Italian painter, probably born 1422, died 1457)
Date Earliest about 1480
Date Latest about 1490
Description This painting is actually a desco da parte or presentation salver commissioned by a noble family to honour the birth of a child. Such objects usually depict a scene connected with childbirth. However, there is some confusion over the subject matter. The most recent opinion favours the story of Joachim in the Wilderness. Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin, had longed for children but after years of trying, they despaired. Joachim went into the wilderness to fast and pray. There, he was visited by an angel who told him that Anna would bear his child. This would have been a suitable story to present to a family who had previously despaired of having children. The treatment of the trees in this painting is very similar to that in Matteo di Giovanni's Saint Bernardino Restoring a Child to Life (Suida-Manning Collection). This painting also includes a half-length image of St Bernardino da Siena in the upper left hand corner, surrounded by gold in a similar manner to the celestial head in this painting. The treatment of the foreground plants is very similar to that seen in two panels of Shield Bearing Hercules (Maastricht), dated to the 1480s.
Current Accession Number 1959P8
Former Accession Number P.8´59
Subject religion (Joachim in the Wilderness: Protoevangelium of James, 4) or David guarding his flocks: I Samuel 17: 34-35)
Measurements 61.0 x 61 cm.0 cm (estimate)
Material oil; gold on panel
Acquisition Details Purchased from P. & D. Colnaghi Co. Ltd 1959.
Principal Exhibitions Painting by Old Masters, Colnaghi, London, 1954, cat. no. 2; Painting by Old Masters, Colnaghi, London, 1959, cat. no. 5; Primitives to Picasso, Royal Academy, London, 1961, cat. no. 12; The Art of Painting in Florence and Sienna, Wildenstein, London, 1965, cat. no. 49 as Pesellino (follower of)
Publications Levey, M., Museums Journal, 2 September 1961; Quinton Smith, M., 'Another Iconographic Problem; Joachim and the Angel', Burlington Magazine, vol. 104, 1962, pp. 110-13, ill.; Watson, P., Art Bulletin, vol. 56, 1974, pp. 4-9; Catalogue of Paintings in Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, 1960; Foreign Paintings in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, A Summary Catalogue, 1983, no. 98.
Notes The previous attribution to Pesellino was made by John Pope-Hennessy. Professor Longhi (and current opinion) considers it to be by the Sienese artist, Matteo di Giovanni.

The subject matter of this work remains uncertain. Quinton Smith has argued that it is strange that the lion and the bear, symbolising courage or victory over avarice and luxury, are not depicted if the painting, if indeed it represents David Guarding his Flocks. He suggests a title of Joachim in the Wilderness. He cites a predella panel by Andrea or Bartolo di Fredi of the same subject in the Vatican (D'Archiardi, catalogue of the primitives, no. 153 (110) - see Van Marle II p. 573) and another work in the same gallery, no. 96 (83) which shows an angel in the sky appearing to Joachim. He suggests that the single lamb is Joachim's sacrificial offering at the Temple which was refused. However, an x-ray examination at the Courtauld Institute reveals that at no time has this figure had a halo as would be required if he was to represent Joachim - or, indeed, the beard that would define him as an older man (x-ray also revealed a letter 'R' scored into the gesso above the shepherd's head but no pentimenti or changes). David Guarding his Flocks would not, in fact, necessarily include the lion and the bear so this still remains an option. The Annunication to one of the Shepherds has also been suggested. However, according to the Bible, this event took place at night and involved a host of angels and many shepherds on a hillside outside Bethlehem - not in the wilderness outside a large city. Michael Levey (Museums Journal, 2 September 1961) suggests that the subject may be secular, e.g. Venus looking longingly at the shepherd Anchises on Mt. Ida. This seems unlikely given the rather cherubic head of the angel. Alistair Laing observes that the celestial head does not have the wings of a cherub and suggests that the subject is almost certainly secular, perhaps depicting Paris summoned by Mercury. However, Paris is described as herding cattle, not guarding sheep as is seen in this work. Furthermore, there is the lamb surrounded by rays of golden light to consider. Professor Elizabeth McGrath (2006) favours the Joachim in the Wilderness identification of the story. Certainly, the main figure is not unequivocally young in appearance and the story would have been suitable for a family who had, perhaps, despaired of having children.

Luke Syson (National Gallery, London) has dated this work to c. 1480s.

Rights Owner Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Author Dr Patricia Smyth



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