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Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck, 1457
Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), Italian (active Siena)
Tempera and gold on panel with vertical grain
20 1/2 x 16 5/8 inches (52.1 x 42.2 cm)
John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
Inv. 723
[ More Details ]

About This Painting

This small panel painting shows Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (to-len-TEE-no) in the miraculous act of saving a ship wrecked in a storm. Made in 1457 by Giovanni di Paolo (jo-VAH-nee dee-POW-lo), the panel was part of a large altarpiece that was dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Tolentino and consisted of a central image of the saint flanked by smaller paintings depicting events in his life and miracles he performed.

The altarpiece was in a church in Montepulciano (a town south of Siena) at which Augustinian friars worshiped daily. Saint Nicholas was himself an Augustinian, a member of the religious order of friars dedicated to following the monastic rule established by Saint Augustine. As they prayed in front of this altarpiece, the friars could enjoy the beauty of the paintings and feel proud that Saint Nicholas of Tolentino also came from the Augustinian order. Each panel reminded the monks of a different miracle or virtue attributed to the saint they revered and may have encouraged them to live by his example.

About This Artist

Although Giovanni di Paolo was a popular artist in his time, we know little of his early life and training. His birth date has not been firmly established, nor can the artists with whom he apprenticed be confirmed. It is known, however, that by 1417 he was working in Siena.

Giovanni di Paolo excelled in portraying religious stories, and his interpretations of such themes are highly imaginative and personal. His dramatic and mystical depictions of fantastic worlds set his work apart from that of other artists of his generation. This highly expressive style seems to have been particularly appreciated by local monastic communities, from whom Giovanni received numerous commissions, including this painting of Saint Nicholas.

About The Story

This panel painting tells the story of one of the many miracles that Saint Nicholas of Tolentino reputedly performed after his death. Nine passengers kneel on the decks of a wrecked ship, praying for Saint Nicholas’s aid. He appears in the sky, radiating golden light and wearing the black habit of the Augustinian order. With his right hand he quells the storm. In his left hand he holds a lily, one of his attributes (identifying symbols). In the sky the ship’s broken sails blow about on a furious wind. In the turbulent waters below, a mermaid—the supposed cause of the storm—swims amid mountainous waves.

The painting portrays this miraculous salvation as recorded by survivors of a shipwreck in the fifteenth century. The artist included in his composition many of the details described in the survivors’ written testimony: brackish, dark-green water, hill-like waves, and a flash of light around Saint Nicholas of Tolentino.

About Saint Nicholas of Tolentino

Nicholas of Tolentino devoted his life to preaching and good works. Born in the town of Sant’Angelo around 1246, about two centuries before this painting was made, he lived—and is said to have worked many miracles—in and around the city of Tolentino, in eastern Italy. In 1446, one hundred forty years after his death, Nicholas was canonized (officially designated a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) by Pope Eugene IV. At the hearings for his canonization, at least 371 people gave witness to miracles performed by him. Survivors of the shipwreck portrayed in the painting were among those who testified.

The Role of Saints in Renaissance Art

Stories from the lives of saints (real people upon whom the Church conferred special status for their holiness) were popular subjects for artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Some saints were martyrs, individuals who died for their religious beliefs. Others, like Nicholas of Tolentino, were credited with good deeds and miraculous events, such as healing an invalid or saving a ship at sea. All saints were venerated for their commitment to God and to the Church. Looked to both as inspiring examples and as intercessors between the faithful and God, saints were adopted as patrons of kingdoms, cities, professions, crafts, institutions, and as protectors against disease and disaster.

Italian Altarpieces

Altarpieces-works of art made to decorate the area above and behind the altar-became common in Italian churches in the early thirteenth century. There could be a number of altarpieces in any one church, adorning the main altar as well as those in the small private chapels. Altars were also found in private homes as well as hospitals and other institutions.

Various factors determined the size, shape, and content of an altarpiece, including the budget, personal tastes, and interests of the patron, the intended location, and, of course, the artist. Moreover, if an altar contained a relic (an object venerated for its association with a saint or martyr), this would be reflected in the subject matter and design of the altarpiece.

Why the Painting Is No Longer Part of an Altarpiece

From the late 1790s to about 1860, Italy underwent a series of political upheavals, at which time the property of churches and other religious institutions was confiscated. Many works of art were acquired by Italian museums or redistributed to the churches themselves, but others were purchased by private collectors. These altarpieces were often cut apart. This fragment was purchased by John G. Johnson in 1914 and came to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1933.

This painting is included in Images of the Middle Ages, a set of teaching posters and resource book produced by the Division of Education and made possible by a generous grant from the Lila Wallace—Reader’s Digest Fund.

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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