PIC - L-R: Blessed Paula, Saint Luke, Saint Peter Damian, Saint Antony, Saint John and Saint Bruno Boniface.
St Mary Magdalene Church, Littleton, is the owner of six wonderful medieval paintings of saints,
which are on long-term loan to the National Gallery in London. They were displayed in the church for
many years, until they were finally taken down in 1979 before restoration work on the walls. How
they came into the church’s possession is a mystery, although they are recorded as belonging to a
collector called William Young Ottley in the nineteenth century.
It is thought that the painter was a fourteenth-century Florentine artist called Jacopo di Cione, and
the saints in question are the gospel writers St John and St Luke, the great hermit St Antony, and
three less widely known saints called Bruno Boniface, Peter Damian, and Paula of Tuscany, many
centuries away from our own time, but devoted to the same God that we know and love.
Jacopo di Cione lived and worked in Florence, where he was born between 1320 and 1330, and died
shortly before 1400. He was a painter, sculptor, and craftsman, as were his brothers Andrea, Nardo,
and Matteo. Together, the brothers ran the most important artists’ workshop in Florence during the
second half of the fourteenth century. The most famous of the brothers was Andrea: it was he who
produced the studio’s best work between 1343 and 1368, and created its style. But when Andrea
died in 1368, Jacopo ably took up the reins, along with the other remaining brothers.
In keeping with their times, the brothers worked mostly on religious subjects, including
representations of the Virgin Mary, the Crucifixion, the disciples, the saints, and the Last Judgement.
They had commissions from churches, including cathedrals, and also from local official buildings and
One way of thinking about them is as survivors. In the mid-fourteenth century, when Jacopo was still
a young adult, Europe was struck by the catastrophe that was the Black Death, an appalling plague
that may have killed as much as half the population. The brothers would have known many who
died. They were part of a Europe which was picking up the pieces, and where life seemed very
transient and fragile. It is a testament to the human spirit and, perhaps, to a little divine
intervention, that in the midst of such dark and insecure times, they were able to produce such
beautiful works of art.
Can we gain any clues about the outlook of people in these times from these six paintings of saints?
What comes across most strongly is the reverence for the tradition of Christian hermits, monks and
nuns. This can be seen from the inclusion of Antony, the great exponent of the solitary path; and of
saints who would have been influenced by Antony, such as Bruno Boniface, Peter Damian and Paula.
Perhaps a link can also be made with John, whose gospel was the most reflective and mystical of the
Might these paintings have been designed for a monastery, perhaps as part of a larger altarpiece?
Some experts have suggested that they came from an altarpiece in the monastery of Santa Maria
degli Angeli in Florence. Whatever the original purpose, their inspiration still shines out for all to see
Latest update: the National Gallery has been undergoing a major refurbishment in recent times, and
many works of art have been stored away temporarily, including the Littleton Saints, but they should
be back on display there soon.