With its tenderly human tableaux painted on a golden background, the St. John Altarpiece, attributed to Francescuccio Ghissi (active 1359–1374), was a gem of Italian art at the dawn of the Renaissance. But at some point in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, the altarpiece was sawn apart to separate its nine constituent panels—which depict episodes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, as well as a crucifixion scene.
Eight of the altarpiece panels—the location of the ninth is unknown—made their way via donation into the collections of American museums. Three belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, one to the Art Institute of Chicago, and one to the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. This last was given by the heirs of five-and-dime store magnate Samuel H. Kress, who also gave three panels to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. There, in an exhibition that opened last summer, curator David Steel fulfilled a longtime ambition to reunite the altarpiece’s parts. To take the place of the lost ninth panel, Steel commissioned a Dutch artist to make a re-creation using the same kind of materials Ghissi used in the fourteenth century. Steel made an educated guess as to the panel’s subject matter: a baptism. The show wrapped up its run in North Carolina, in early March, and has now moved to Portland.
Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece • Portland Art Museum, Oregon • to July 9 • portlandartmuseum.org