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The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine

Denys Calvaert (Antwerp c.1540 - Bologna 1619)

Category

Art / Oil paintings

Date

1590 - 1595

Materials

Oil on copper

Measurements

476 x 381 mm (18 3/4 x 15 in)

Place of origin

Italy

Order this image

Collection

Stourhead, Wiltshire

NT 732108

Caption

The visual depiction of the mystic betrothal of the Infant Jesus to Catherine came from words given to her in The Golden Legend. Here Christ is offering a ring. Saint Catherine, wearing a crown to signify her own royal birth, is having her hand held out to receive it. In the foreground is part of a spiked wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom -although not her actual death - as, around AD310, the pagan Emperor Maxentius finally killed her by decapitation. In the background is the desert hermit, Adrian, who converted her to Christianity. The infant John the Baptist is present but scholars disagree who the other two women are. Some say it is not Anne supporting Christ but his mother and that it is not the Virgin who sits on the throne beside Catherine but her mother, Queen Sabinella. Above, cherubim hover holding the golden circlet of eternity. Calvaert was a Netherlandish artist who settled in Bologna, where he opened an art school around 1575.

Summary

Oil painting on copper, The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Denys Calvaert (Antwerp 1540 – Bologna 1619), 1590-95. The Christ Child sits on his cradle, left, supported by Saint Anne, the Virgin’s mother, and holds out a ring. On the far left is the infant John the Baptist with his attribute, the lamb. Saint Catherine, on the right, crowned to signify her own royal birth, is being introduced to Christ by the Virgin Mary who sits on a throne underneath a baldachin curtained in green velvet. In the background is Saint Joseph, or possibly the desert hermit who baptised her, and behind him, in the distance, is a mountainous valley landscape. Above, a host of cherubim hover holding the golden circlet of eternity. Saint Catherine’s attribute, the wheel, is placed in the foreground.

Full description

The betrothal of Saint Catherine to the infant Christ with a ring is an essentially visual tradition, that developed out of the words - themselves taken from the ecstatic language of medieval mystics - with which, according to The Golden Legend, this entirely apocryphal saint is supposed to have spoken of Christ to her torturer, the Emperor Maxentius: "He is my God, my lover, my shepherd, and my sole spouse". She wears a crown, to denote the fact that she was supposedly the only daughter of a king called Costus; whilst the broken wheel is emblematic of the Emperor's attempt to put her to an exemplary death by having her cut up by two counterrailing wheels with blades attached to them. This was thwarted by angels with such force that they destroyed four thousand spectators. The saint's actual martyrdom - in token of which the child-angel holds a palm frond behind her - was by decapitation. Her body is then supposed to have been carried by angels to Mount Sinai, to the spot now occupied by the monastery dedicated to her, which was, however, founded in 527, before her legend had ever been invented. In the present picture, the betrothal is performed by the Virgin Mary, who - on a throne and under a baldachin, as the Queen of Heaven - acts as Saint Catherine's sponsor; whilst the Virgin's mother, St. Anne, holds the Christ Child, who sits on a cloth-covered cradle, that is both prefatory of the altar on which he is offered as a daily sacrifice in the Mass. Behind them is the infant Saint John the Baptist, clutching his emblem, the lamb, and another martyr's palm. Saint Joseph looks on from behind, and a glory of child-angels swoops down from above, bringing a circlet of eternity, in exchange for Catherine's earthly crown. All this is highly Catholic imagery, making much of the very things - the cults of the Virgin, saints, and angels - that the Protestant Reformers had denied. And, whilst in no way peculiar to Calvaert and his generation, his loving - almost playful - treatment of them seems to set his art apart from that of the Carracci generation in Bologna, whose art has stronger ties with the Counter-Reformation emphasis upon the central christological mysteries of the faith promulgated by Bishop Paleotti of Bologna. The reform of painting in Bologna is similarly associable with two overlapping stages in the schools of painting set up there. The first was set up by Calvaert after his return from Rome in 1575, and its subsequent pupils included Guido Reni, Domenichino and Albani. The second was the so-called Accademia degli Desiderosi or Incamminati, founded by the Carracci around 1582/3, to which all three of these artists later transferred. The essential difference between the two was that Calvaert's was primarily a traditional studio, in which artists learnt to work with his methods and in his style, whereas the Carraccis, as their choice of the word 'academy' and its title implying the desire and the pursuit of knowledge indicate, was intended to take its students back to first principles - above all, back to the study of nature. Calvaert, in turning himself from a Flemish into an Italian artist, went back to the same High Renaissance models as the Carracci - to Raphael and Correggio, in particular - but tended to do so in a spirit of imitation of their paintings, rather than by taking them as guides to the imitation of elevated nature. Thus, in the present picture, the overall idea for the composition would appear to be indebted to Raphael's Great Madonna of François Ier (Musée du Louvre, Paris), with further inspiration for the pose of the Christ-Child from the Madonna del Divino Amore (Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples), whilst the delicate little features of the Virgin and of St. Catherine, and the general sweetness, derive from one of Correggio's no less than four treatments of this subject, the much-copied painting now in Capodimonte, but then in the Farnese collections in Parma. It is the painting's shared Correggiesque qualities that account for its old ascription to Barrocci - who was, however, always monumental even on a small scale, whereas Calvaert perpetually seems small and precious, even on a large one. There is no better indication of the essentially retardataire quality of Calvaert, as against the forward-looking naturalism of the Carracci, than a comparison between this picture and the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine in a private collection in Bologna that was only recognised relatively recently as an early work by Lodovico Carracci . Despite areas of indebtedness to Parmigianino, it conveys a real impression of - not very beautiful - protagonists firmly implanted in real space. There are greater affinities between the present picture and the Madonna del Latte and SS. Benedict, Margaret, Cecilia, and John the Baptist (Galleria Nazionale, Parma), the earliest independently dated painting by Agostino Carracci - who was also inclined to look back to Correggio for inspiration - particularly between the St. Catherine and the St. Cecilia in that painting (which was, interestingly, miscalled the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine by Bellori. Calvaert treated the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine in a number of paintings. One, in particular, is very close to this one, and probably provides the best indication of its dating. That is the painting from the Sacchetti collection in the Musei Capitolini in Rome , on which traces of the signature and date: DIONISI CAL .... 1590 have been discovered. The composition is essentially that of the present picture, but in reverse, and restricted to the figures of the Virgin and Saint Catherine, Saint Anne and the Christ Child, and Saint John the Baptist peeping from behind St. Catherine, where the little angel now emerges with a palm-frond. A drawing from the collection of Alfonso III d'Este, Duke of Modena (d.1644), in the Louvre brings the composition much closer to the present painting: a little angel, just as in this, takes the place of Saint John the Baptist, who is given a lamb and brought to the front of the picture; St Joseph is added in the same position as in the present picture, but in reverse; and a glory of putti-angels in the same poses as those in the present painting swoop down with circlets and flowers, but from the right rather than from the left. Although the Louvre drawing was exhibited in 1965 as a study for the Capitoline painting, it seems probable that this last was created first, as a domestic altarpiece (it is on canvas, and measures 70 x 94cm), and that the Louvre drawing was made subsequently, to prepare first a little painting on canvas in the Auckland City Art Gallery that is modelled almost directly on it, save that it is in reverse , and then, as a further elaboration of that, the present little painting on copper for a collector's cabinet. The types of the figures in this are very close to those of another little painting on copper, of The Holy Family with SS. Elizabeth [or Anne?] and John the Baptist, signed and dated 1586 DIONISIO FIAMENGO, that was sold at Sotheby's 29 Nov. 1961, lot 90; but, by comparison with that painting, those in this are yet further diminished and prettified. A comparable approach is adopted in two other little paintings on copper of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt with serving angels. One, of which there is a variant in the National Museum of Warsaw, for which there are preparatory drawings in the Albertina, the National Museum in Budapest, and sold at Sotheby's, 30 Oct. 1980, lot 76, which has been acquired by the National Gallery of Scotland , has been dated to 1593 -94, when Guido Reni was in Calvaert's studio, because of the younger painter's use of its central motif in his earliest known work as an independent painter. The other is in the Tweed Museum of Art in the University of Minnesota, and, when first exhibited , was not unreasonably compared with the little paintings on copper of Johannes Rottenhammer (1564 -1625) who arrived in Rome from Germany in 1589, and was active in Vienna from 1596 to 1608. It seems very likely that Calvaert gained cognisance of his works after his arrival in Italy, and was encouraged by them towards the further miniaturisation and intensification of the jewel-like brilliance in colouring of his paintings. A dating to between 1590 and 1595 would therefore not seem implausible for the present picture. The picture is one of those at Stourhead that were acquired by Henry II Hoare 'the Magnificent' (1705 -1785), almost certainly from France (probably via an auction in London), to judge by its superb French Rococo frame. Unlike many owners, Henry Hoare seems to have made a point of retaining good French frames on his pictures (e.g. on both the Poussin still at Stourhead, of The Choice of Hercules, and that of The Rape of the Sabines, sold in the Heirlooms sale of 1883, and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), rather than reframing them uniformly with the rest of the collection. So did his successor, Colt Hoare, who, when he placed this and a number of other pictures like a predella in his new Picture Gallery, seems deliberately to have set off their lively Rococo frames, as grace-notes to the more sober Maratta-type frames of the larger paintings. Notes: (i) See exh. cat. The Age of Correggio and the Carracci, National Gallery of Art, Washington &c., 1986, no.101. (ii) Exh.cat. op.cit., 1986, no.80. (iii) Inv. no.99; see exh. cat. Les siècle de Brueghel, Musées Royaux des Beauz-Arts, Brussels, 1963 (iv) Inv. 19.836; see Revue de l'Art, XLV/4 (Oct.1928), fig. p.164; exh. Le Seizième Siècle Européen:dessins du Louvre, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1965, no.196. (v) Originally ascribed to F. Mazzuola (i.e. Parmigianino), but attributed to Pietro Faccini when presented by Mr. J. Yock in 1960 (cf. Auckland City Art Gallery Quarterly, No.14, 1960; P. A. Tomoroy, Art in Italy 1500 - 1800, Auckland, 1962). The faces of the Virgin and St. Catherine are more italianate - and the latter more Parmigianinesque than those habitual with Calvaert, so that the attribution may not be entirely wide of the mark: Calvaert may have delegated some or all of the painting to a pupil - but surely not Faccini: could it have been Reni? - to execute: hence its being on a lowlier support. (vi) Exh. The School of Bologna 1570 -1730:Calvaert to Crespi, Harari & Johns, London, 1987. (vii) See A Collection Rediscovered:European Paintings from the Tweed Museum of Art, The Minneapolis Museum of Art, 1986 -88, no.7. (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., National Gallery 1995)

Provenance

?a collection in France; acquired by Henry II Hoare, 'the Magnificent' (1705-1785) - first recorded by the payment of one guinea to Collivo [= Collerous] for "cleaning Barroch" on 29 April 1759; then listed in the Cabinet Room by Horace Walpole in 1762 (as "Marriage of St. Catherine, by Baroccio"); thence by descent until given to the National Trust along with the house, its grounds and the rest of the contents, by Sir Henry Hoare, 6th Bt (1865-1947), in 1946; acquired by Henry Hoare II (1705-85); cleaned in the house in 1759; given to the National Trust along with the house, its grounds, and the rest of contents by Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare, 6th Bt (1865 – 1947) in 1946.

Credit line

Stourhead, The Hoare Collection (National Trust)

Makers and roles

Denys Calvaert (Antwerp c.1540 - Bologna 1619), artist previously catalogued as attributed to Italian School previously catalogued as attributed to Federico Barocci (Urbino c.1533 – Urbino 1612)

Exhibition history

In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.58

References

Walpole 1927-28 Paget Toynbee (ed.), 'Horace Walpole's Journals of Visits to Country Seats, etc.', 1760-62, Walpole Society XVI, 1927 -28 pp. 9-80, p.42 Stourhead 1785 Schedule of Pictures left by Henry Hoare at his death, 1785 Colt Hoare 1818 Sir Richard Colt Hoare, A Description of the House and Gardens at Stourhead...with a Catalogue of the Pictures, Salisbury 1800, Bath 1818, rev. 1822, p.18 Stourhead 1838: Inventory of Heir-Looms at Stourhead directed to be taken by the Will of the late Sir Richard Colt Hoare Bart. with the state and condition thereof, 1838 , no.339 Stourhead 1898 Alda, Lady Hoare, Catalogue of Principal Paintings & Drawings at Stourhead July 6th 1898 (Ms.typescript), 1898 , p.20 Stourhead Wiltshire, 1992: List of Pictures, [National Trust; Anthony Mitchell & Alastair Laing] 1992 , p.10 Laing 2000: Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation: Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh. cat.), The National Gallery, London, 22 November 1995 - 10 March 1996, no.58

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