Artists Past and Present:

Carlo Crivelli (1435 - 1495)

“Carlo Crivelli is one of the most important, but historically neglected, painters of the 15th century. He manipulated the surface of each painting with rare mastery of the medium, crafting visionary encounters with the divine.”

The Museum of San Francesco in Montefiore has a room dedicated to the great 15th century painter Carlo Crivelli. One of his greatest works can be found here, but many are still to be found in churches in other parts of Le Marche, and many of them in the churches for which they were intended.


One of the best examples is the famous triptych which was in the church of San Francesco but is now in the museum.


Mary Magdalene, Triptych by Carlo Crivelli, Polo Museale, Montefiore dell'Aso


Today only a spectacular series of six painted panel altar-pieces remains of what was originally a polyptych with five sections and a predella upper panel. This is said to represent the most independent and creative period of his artistic activity. The finest of these existing panels,(depicting Saint Mary Magdalene), is thought to be among the most beautiful figures by Carlo Crivelli. 


The rough figure of Saint Peter dominates the centre, in strong contrast with the delicate images of St. Catherine of Alexandria on the left, with the wheel and palm of the martyr. Saint Mary Magdalene is on the right, with the ointment and bright red cloak that are symbols of the Passion. 


In the upper part, Saint Louis of Toulouse is represented on the right, Saint Clare in the centre and another Franciscan saint of uncertain identity (possibly Ludovic) is on the left. Crivelli was not born in the Marche, but in Venice in about 1430. Sadly, little is known of his life, but we know that he studied in Venice and probably Padua. One of the few things we do know was that he was sentenced to six-months in prison in 1457 for adultery with a married woman.


After this he left Padua in 1459 and went to Zadar, which was then in Venetian territory but is now part of Croatia. From there he moved to the Marche, in or near Ascoli Piceno,( though the exact location is unknown), until his death around 1493.

As well as his ability to depict love, beauty and religious ecstasy, he was also adept at conveying horror. The mouths of many of his subjects are twisted in grimaces of agony, and wounds are gaping and raw. He painted with a strong clarity and attention to detail, in contrast with the softness of image that was becoming popular in the Florentine school.

He is considered as somewhat conservative in his style and rejected a lot of the contemporary Florentine developments in painting in favour of the International Gothic style. He chose to paint only in tempora rather than oils, and only on wood panels rather than canvas.


He also like to add ornate gilded backgrounds to his images, and used stucco to give a three-dimensional effect to elements such as tears, drops of blood or jewels. He also used ‘trompe l’oeil’ in common with Northern Renaissance painters such as Rogier van der Weyden. It is possibly for this conservatism that he fell out of favour after his death.


In Vasari’s significant work ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects’(1550) he is not even mentioned. There was a brief resurgence of his popularity when the Pre-Raphaelite movement, particularly Edward Burne-Jones, espoused him in Britain.


The influences of the Venetian school and figures such as Vivarini, Squarcione and Mantegna are clear in his work. However, his style developed along different lines, particularly in contrast with the atmospheric style of his Venetian contemporary, Giovanni Bellini.


His work is full of strong lines and vibrant colours, and are rich in realistic detail. He was particularly fond of using verdant rural landscapes full of flowers and fruit as backgrounds to the religious scenes depicted. His work is entirely religious in subject matter, probably because his commissions all came from wealthy religious orders in Ascoli.

Find out more about Carlo Crivelli with these videos:

          - Shedding New Light on a Renaissance Master

          - National Gallery - Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading

          - Read more about the Polyptich of Carlo Crivelli


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