Saint Clare Rescuing a Child Mauled by a Wolf, c. 1455–1460
Giovanni di Paolo, Italian (Sienese), c. 1399–c. 1482
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
panel: 8 1/8 × 11 1/2 in. (20.6 × 28.1 cm) frame: 9 15/16 × 13 5/16 × 2 1/8 in. (25.2 × 33.8 × 5.4 cm)
The Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Saint Clare Rescuing a Child Mauled by a Wolf
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
During the 14th and 15th centuries, there was no systematic method of naming individuals. Some artists chose their own names, while others named themselves after their fathers or the towns where they lived or were born. The name Giovanni di Paolo means “Giovanni, the son of Paolo,” and the artist usually is referred to simply as “Giovanni.”
Little is known about Giovanni’s life and artistic training. He lived in Siena, in the Tuscan region of Italy. The artist’s first recorded painting commissions date from 1420, suggesting that he was born around 1399. He produced book illuminations as well as panel paintings. Giovanni joined the Painters Guild of Siena in 1428, remaining at the forefront of the group until 1441. At around that time, he began signing his work regularly. His last documented painting is signed and dated 1475.
This small painting tells a story from the life of Saint Clare of Assisi (1194–1253), as told in the official biography written shortly after her canonization in 1255. In the center of the composition, a child is being attacked by a wolf. In grisly detail, Giovanni shows the wolf clutching the child’s bloody, severed forearm in its teeth. The child looks backward, towards his kneeling mother, who pleads for heavenly intervention. In the upper right is an apparition of Saint Clare, emerging amidst golden rays. The saint makes a gesture of benediction over the scene below, thus saving the life of the child. Giovanni presents the story with clarity and impact, including only those elements necessary to understand the miracle.
Giovanni’s highly personal style retains a dreamy, almost mystical quality. Strange landscapes appear frequently in his work, and here the sparse setting adds to the isolation of the helpless figures. With the exception of the grid of receding fields composed in accordance with Renaissance perspective, the painting illustrates the naive style that gives the artist’s work its mystical power.
The technique of painting on wood panel remained relatively unchanged between 1350 and 1500. An artist would commission a carpenter to produce the wooden framework and panel pieces in the appropriate size. The panels—often made of poplar—were seasoned to protect against woodworm and changes in humidity. The artist would then coat the panel, paint the scene, and embellish the finished work with gilt. While gilding added to the expense of a painting, certain pigments, such as blue made from lapis lazuli, also considerably increased the price of a painting, revealing the wealth and taste of the owner.
Few Italian multipaneled paintings have survived in their original format. This panel originally was part of a larger altarpiece that at some point in its history was dismantled, probably to be sold or moved. The complete altarpiece is believed to have contained three additional panels— now in other museums—along with a large centrally placed crucifix. Because the companion panels also narrate the story of Saint Clare, it is believed that the altarpiece was made for one of Siena’s four churches of the Poor Clares, the order founded by the saint.
- What is happening in this scene? Tell the story of the image from start to finish. Pick one character to empathize with and tell the story from their perspective.
- How do you feel when you look at this painting? Is there anything that’s confusing to you?
- Where is this scene taking place? Can you think of a place that looks like this?
- How does di Paolo create depth in this painting? Try to find the foreground, middle ground, and background. How can you tell each object’s distance from you, the viewer?
- Do you think it was more important that he made an accurately represented snapshot of a space, or that he told the story? Why or why not?
- What words would you use to describe this space? Why do you think di Paolo would have created such a strange space for this scene to unfold?
- What effect does the landscape have on the painting? How would this feel different if it was placed somewhere else—in a city, perhaps, or in a country field? If it was represented totally accurately?
- Picture a present-day version of this painting. What is the crisis? Who do you call for help? What does the painting look like?
- Analyze the attributes of Renaissance perspective in this painting. Support your analysis with evidence from the work of art.
- Create a perspective painting. Include a link to the illustrated PDF from the sixth grade: Reliving the Renaissance, One-Point Perspective.
Subject Matter Connection
- Use math terminology to describe areas of the painting ( i.e. find two intersecting lines that form an obtuse angle).
Resources Available to Order
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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.