Today is the Feast Day of St. Bernard. In the early 1480s, Piero di Francesco del Pugliese commissioned Florentine artist Filippino Lippi to paint an altarpiece depicting the miraculous Vision of St. Bernard to decorate the Benedictine monastery at Campora, just outside Florence. Bernard, wearing the white robes of the reformed Cistercian order, sits at his writing desk. The Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels, appears to him and guides his studies. Lippi has set the scene in a rural landscape, much like that of the country retreat at Campora used by the Benedictine community from the Badia of Florence, and includes a view of Bernard’s monastery and brethren in the distance. Pugliese is shown in a half-length portrait at the lower right, perpetually in prayer and reverence to Bernard and the Virgin. The small scroll above Bernard’s head reads Sustine et abstine – a quote from Epictetus meaning “Carry on and abstain” – a reference to Bernard’s ascetic lifestyle and devotion to the religious life.
A preparatory sketch for this altarpiece still survives – a rare occurrence of a figure drawing matching a known work. As is typical with artists’ drawings, the sketch has greater vivacity and immediacy, and the saint appears to be younger – perhaps reflecting the use of a model for the pose. Lippi uses the typical fifteenth-century technique of metalpoint, a demanding yet beautiful means of drawing that was replaced in the sixteenth century by easier-to-use chalk. Despite the unforgiving nature of the stylus, Lippi creates effortless and subtle strokes highlighted with white watercolor. Lippi has one of the largest bodies of surviving drawings among early Renaissance artists.
Filippino Lippi, Apparition of the Virgin to St. Bernard, oil on panel, 1486, formerly Santa Maria alle Campora, now Badia Fiorentina, Florence
Filippino Lippi, St. Bernard, metaipoint heightened with white gouache on peach-colored prepared paper, Florence, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi