Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Panel from the Humility Polyptych - Umilta helps to build the church and monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista
  • Creator: Lorenzetti, Pietro, painter, attributed to
  • Description:

    This image comes from the Beata Umilta polyptych, with panels in the Uffizi gallery in Florence and the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This particular scene depicts Saint Umilta bringing material to help build the Vallombrosan women’s monastery she founded along with the church of San Giovanni Evangelista where this polyptych originally stood. In its entirety, the Beata Umilta polyptych includes a large image of the saint, thirteen narrative scenes, seven roundels, and five pinnacles which celebrate the life and miracles of the holy woman. Although the panels are divided between two museums, scholars have been able to recreate the arrangement of the scenes based on the narrative order in the two fourteenth century lives of the saint. Additionally, scholars generally identify the Blessed Margarita of Faenza, a nun in the monastery, as the commissioner of the polyptych painted by Pietro Lorenzetti around 1340.

    Saint Umilta was not a devout religious woman for the entirety of her life. She was born Rosanese Negusanti to a wealthy noble family in Faenza. At a young age, Rosanese’s family married her to a nobleman by the name of Ugolotto dei Caccianemici. Rosanese gave birth to two children, both of whom, sadly, did not live past infancy. Later, Umilta persuaded her husband to give her a separation, so that they could both lead lives dedicated to God.

    As an abbess of the Vallombrosan order, Umilta embodied the Christian ideal of humility, taking the name Humilitas. The new abbess Umilta was particularly concerned with healing the sick. Christian historians refer to her as a thaumaturge, which means that she healed people by praying for divine intervention. There are many stories of Saint Umilta imploring God to heal the sick- members of religious orders as well as laypersons. In the polyptych we see, among other instances, a dead child revived and a nun cured of hemorrhage. In addition to healing the sick, Saint Umilta also helped build the abbey church and convent of San Giovanni Evangelista. A surviving document records that the high altar of the church was consecrated in 1297. The building of the church was seen as one of Umilta’s greatest achievements along with her miraculous ability to read Latin without any training.

    Umilta is consistently depicted as a strong and independent abbess. This is part of an emerging tradition of autonomous religious women, as well as an increasing trend depicting these women in religious art. The Lorenzetti brothers were at the forefront of this movement. Pietro and Ambrogio were responsible for painting another multi-part cycle of a holy woman’s life, that of Margherita of Cortona. Margherita, like Umilta, was strong-minded. She had renounced a life of sin as a concubine and devoted herself to prayer, good works and mystical visions.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Abbesses Architecture- Religious Hagiography Monasticism Umilta of Faenza, Mystic and Saint Women in Religion
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1335-1340
  • Related Work: Humility Polyptych. See a reconstruction of the polyptych on the Feminae website.
    Scene from the life of Margherita of Cortona, The Revival and Healing of Bartoluccio of Cortona (watercolor made 1629-40 of the fresco painted by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti)
  • Current Location: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
  • Original Location: Florence, Monastery of San Giovanni Evangelista, a Vallombrosan house for women founded by Umiltà
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Polyptych; Wood panel
  • Donor: Lay woman? [Cordelia Warr in her article cited above suggests the kneeling donor figure in the polyptych is a lay woman based on her clothing, pp. 296-297.]
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 45 cm/37 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Cannon, Joanna and André Vauchez. Margherita of Cortona and the Lorenzetti: Sienese Art and the Cult of a Holy Woman in Medieval Tuscany. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999;
    Smith, Janet G. "Santa Umilta of Faenza: Her Florentine Convent and Its Art", Visions of Holiness: Art and Devotion in Renaissance Italy. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia, 2001;
    Warr, Cordelia. “Viewing and Commissioning Pietro Lorenzetti’s Saint Humility Polyptych,” Journal of Medieval History 26, 3 (2000): 269-300.