The National Gallery’s ‘rediscovered Renaissance master’ is a minor affair

A detail from the Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece (1455-60), begun by 'Pistoletto'
A detail from the Pistoia Santa Trinità Altarpiece (1455-60), begun by 'Pistoletto' - National Gallery

Christmas is still three weeks away, but epiphany is already at hand at the National Gallery, in this, the “first exhibition ever devoted” to the 15th-century Florentine painter Francesco di Stefano, known as “Pesellino”. His patrons included the Medici family and the papal court, but in 1457, aged just 35, he was picked off by the plague, and his small but impressive oeuvre was forgotten. Here, cajoles the gallery, is an opportunity to discover an overlooked “Renaissance master”.

That nickname? A diminutive of his artist-grandfather’s, “Pesello”, meaning “the pea”, or “an off-colour term for the male member”, as an expert delicately puts it in the catalogue. As with granddad’s manhood, though, the National Gallery’s revelation proves modest: with only eight catalogue entries, this free show, held in a single room behind the portico, is in truth a minor affair.

Mostly, the works are small or fragmentary or both. Several involve another’s hand, relate to masterpieces that aren’t here, or predate Pesellino’s maturity, before which his style could be naïve and stiff. For instance, in an early wilderness scene, involving Saint Francis, from a predella (the base of an altarpiece), rocky outcrops resemble canvas stretched across a wooden  frame, while a Christ-like seraph, zapping golden rays at the friar as he miraculously receives the stigmata, has an adolescent aura, like an awkward comic-book superhero.

Nearby, a mysterious panel depicts King Melchior, one of the gift-giving magi, en route to honour the newborn Jesus; it has a strange, airless quality, like a surrealist dream. Supposedly afloat on green water, the various vessels appear, rather, becalmed within a meadow. Those flinty clouds, with pink underbellies, could have been painted by René Magritte.

Yet there were reasons why Pesellino was successful. A facsimile reproduces his gold-inscribed miniature of Pope Nicholas V, enrobed in a psychedelic garment, and enthroned between pink pilasters. Like Pesellino’s half-length painting of the Virgin and Child, it suggests the artist’s propensity for what the Florentines called “disegno” – drawing, or design. (According to Giorgio Vasari, Pesellino “never stopped drawing day or night.”) That Virgin and Child (c1455), moreover, epitomises the new vogue, during the mid 15th-century, for such devotional groups – a fashion set by Pesellino.

Pesellino's Virgin and Child (c1455)
Pesellino's Virgin and Child (c1455) - National Gallery/Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

His ability to bestow clarity upon complex scenes is exemplified by a pair of panels depicting the story of David and Goliath. The courageous shepherd boy – again, dressed superhero-like, in a fluttering pink cape – appears repeatedly as the story unfolds. Eventually, triumphant, he clutches the giant’s severed head by the hair.

And it’s easy to admire Pesellino’s skill at representing animals. The David panels, the cleaning and restoration of which provided this exhibition’s “stimulus”, are a whinnying, growling menagerie of domestic and exotic beasts: cattle and falcons, a bear cub and a leopard, and almost 80 horses – including one, dramatically foreshortened, falling at the Philistine’s colossal feet. A lion’s muzzle even appears – just! – at the left edge of the Pistoia Altarpiece. If any of his qualities will endear Pesellino to our nation of animal-lovers, it’s this.

From Dec 7 to March 10. Info: