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St. Catherine of Alexandria

Painting, 1599, 173×133 cm

Description of the artwork «St. Catherine of Alexandria»

"Saint Catherine of Alexandria" (ca. 1598 - 1599) is a timeless depiction of beauty in the best traditions of portrait painting. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio did not show the heroine in a mystical trance, but turned her towards the viewer, establishing direct eye contact between them. For the picture, which Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, almost surely, ordered in Rome, the first patron of the painter, posed the young courtesan Phillida Melandroni, who was part of Caravaggio's social circle.

The saint is dressed in rich clothes according to the fashion of that time - a white blouse with wide sleeves, flowing loose folds, and with gold trim on the neckline, as well as in a purple dress, decorated with a wide braid of gold thread on the front and straps. She kneels on a cushion of red damask, her bowed body rests on a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom, with a luxurious, dense and heavy blue cloth hanging from its axis. The woman gently squeezes the sword, the tip of which is painted red - perhaps it is a hint of spilled blood or just a reflection of the pillow - and at its feet lies a palm branch.

The dramatic lighting of the scene creates a kyaroskuro effect characteristic of Caravaggio. His approach to light and volume, pronounced on this canvas, had a significant impact on artists both in Italy and throughout Europe.

Today, St. Catherine of Alexandria is one of the most iconic works in the collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum in Madrid. Full provenance allows you to trace its history almost from the moment of writing to the present day. The canvas is listed in the inventory of the property compiled after the death of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, and then in the posthumous inventory of the property of his successor Uguccone del Monte in 1626. Two years later, the picture was sold, and its new owner, apparently, was Cardinal Antonio Barberini. In the documents of his family, "St. Catherine" appears in the 1644th, 1671th and 1817 years. Later it was put on the market, and in 1934 it was bought for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in the gallery in Lucerne.

The picture was the subject of numerous comments and discussions about his attribution, the date of creation and how the artist approached the disclosure of the topic. In 1916, Roberto Longhi, one of the major experts on Caravaggio, suggested that the author of the canvas could be Orazio Gentileschi. However, six years later, art critic Matteo Marangoni stated that the high quality of the work indicates that this is the hand of Caravaggio. To date, this view is accepted by all experts on the artist without any reservations.

The canvas was written shortly before the large cycle, which Caravaggio created for the Contratalli chapel in Rome. Then he began to use more compact forms based on the Kyaroskuro technique (the play of light and shadow), which emphasized the expressiveness of his compositions. Experts note that in this work the light source is on the right, which is unusual for Caravaggio's work. This nuance suggests that the picture was developed for a particular interior.

In 2018, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum completed the restoration and technical studies of the painting. Analysis of the colors showed that in the first version the dress of the heroine was red, but later the artist chose a different shade for him. The reason for the changes is unknown, one can only assume that Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte wished the saint to look more restrained and decent.

The violet-blue dye, which was eventually painted, contains a mixture of lapis lazuli, azurite particles, cochineal red, black coal and white lead. Lapis lazuli mixed with finely ground coal is also found in cloth on the wheel. The presence of this semi-precious stone indicates that Caravaggio received funds to purchase the best materials for this order.

X-ray also showed a number of changes that the artist made. The most significant belong to the hands of a young woman: initially they were higher. The picture shows numerous fingers around the left hand, indicating that the painter was looking for options for their location. Experts also saw that he drew the entire circumference of the wheel to fit it into the composition, and then painted over the part that, according to legend, broke when the saint touched it.

Author: Vlad Maslov
from 1450 rub
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Religious scene

Style of art: Baroque

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1599

Size: 173×133 cm

Artwork in selections: 11 selections

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