The artist of "Portrait of St. Bernardino" was born in Pistoia, Italy, at the end of the 15th century and was the son of the Renaissance painter Bernardino del Signoraccio. Fra Paolino was ordained as a Dominican friar and was apprenticed at an early age, probably about 1503, to Tuscan painter Fra Bartolommeo in Florence. Fra Paolino’s paintings are heavily inspired by and often repeat motifs from Fra Bartolommeo. When the master died in 1517, Fra Paolino inherited his workshop and continued to work for the churches and convents belonging to congregations founded by religious and political reformer Girolamo Savonarola.
This work, small in scale and meant to be viewed in close proximity, was almost certainly created for private devotion. St. Bernardino (1380–1444) was a popular Franciscan preacher from Siena who was later sainted. He preached veneration of the name of Jesus. Here, he is dressed in a monk's habit and depicted outdoors with a small hillside behind him in the distance. In his right hand, he carries a book of Scriptures. In his left hand, he holds a glowing gold object – a seal set in a shining sun depicting the letters "IHS" which represents the first three letters of Christ's name in Greek, (with the third initial rendered as “S”). This iconography is called a Christogram and credited to St. Bernardino, who carried it while he performed miracles. Images of St. Bernadino often include this monogram and help identify the saint here. The reverse of this panel has a red wax seal, yet to be identified, indicating the collection that it came from prior to being owned by Gilbert A. Millikan, a local Missoula collector and major contributor to the MMAC permanent collection. The ornate hand-carved gilded frame is original to the object and has been repaired in the past.
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"Portrait of St. Bernardino" is part of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s permanent collection and can be viewed, along with 119 equally interesting pieces, at the Paxson and Meloy galleries in the PAR-TV Center on the University of Montana campus. MMAC’s exhibit “Art of the State: Celebrating 120 Years of the MMAC Permanent Collection” runs through May 23.