Antonio del Massaro da Viterbo, better known as Pastura, is one of the most important figures of the second half of the 1400s. His triptych with the representation of the Madonna of the belt, placed between two panel representing St. Gregory and St. Gerome, is one of the most beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums’ collection. It is also, however, one of the most problematic works for the Pinacoteca because it is difficult to determine its exact history.
Massaro was a painter who strictly observed Umbrian technique and followed the example set by Perugino and Pintoricchio. In 1478, as a subscriber to the statute of the Compagnia di San Luca, he painted in Rome where he had the chance to become acquainted with the painting of Antoniazzo and Melozzo. It is believed that he may have been involved with painting the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (1481-82), or at the very least observing their completion up close. In 1489, he was working in Orvieto on tasks entrusted to him by the Operai dell’Opera del Duomo. In 1492, del Massaro returned to Rome to work on the frescoes of the Borgia Apartments. He stayed here until 1495, contributing to the Room of the Mysteries (Assunzione della Vergine) and to the Room of the Liberal Arts (la Retorica, la Musica, l’Astronomia) in Vatican City.
The similarity of the central compartment of this triptych to the composition scheme of the Assumption was noted by many commentators. The Pastura left behind what are arguably his greatest masterpieces in the frescoes found in the choir of the Duomo di Tarquinia (1508-09). Although they were damaged by a fire in 1642, these frescoes make reference to the Roman and Umbrian-Lazian culture and the paintings of Ghirlandaio and Signorelli.
The Triptych featured here, dating to 1497, in the cornice of the architrave resting on the arch of the sacello, in the compartment on the left (Messa di San Gregorio), was created during a period of transition in del Massaro’s style, when, having returned back to Orvieto in the service of the Opera del Duomo, he was hired for the decoration of the groups of the baldacchino and for the restoration of the fourteenth-century frescoes of the choir. This last feat landed him the commission of four New Testament “stories” to be frescoed in the “tribuna” (l’Annunciazione, la Visitazione, la Presentazione al Tempio, la Fuga in Egitto).
The chromatic and compositional solutions adopted in the three compartments of the current polyptych, are counted among the most successful creations of the painter. The artist masterfully varied the layout of the recessed areas and perfectly calibrated the construction of the interior spaces. The left panel depicts the famous episode of the Mass celebrated by Saint Gregory in a chapel of his monastery at Celio (the Saint, bent over the host, has the miraculous vision of Christ in pietà– il Vir dolorum of the medieval iconography as a “speaking” symbol of the Eucharistic sacrifice-, here is also added the interesting variant of the bust of Madonna and Child). The right image shows St. Gerome penitent in the desert (the Saint, recognizable by the attributes of the lion and the cardinal cap, beats his chest while praying, on his knees, in front of the Crucifix). The central panel illustrates the traditional apparition of the Virgin to Saint Thomas, in the act of offering him her own belt (in other words the reliquary of her own belt, or Sacro Cingolo, today conserved in the Duomo di Prato). The belt is material evidence of her assumption to heaven (represented by the empty sarcophagus in the background) and a sign of apostolic duty, intercession, and spiritual communion (Thomas, in accordance with what is narrated in the Gospels, needs the aid of physical proof to sustain himself in his faith). By virtue of its particular iconographic themes, it is probable that the triptych was originally destined for an important monastic community, likely Roman, characterized by pronounced doctrinal interests and by a marked devotion to the Virgin and the Fathers of the Church. This painting is expected to be returned on display to the Painting Gallery.