Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Martyrdom of St Agatha

Sebastiano Luciani known as Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485, Venice – June 21, 1547, Rome)
The Martyrdom of St Agatha 1520
Oil on canvas 131 x 175cm
Galería Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

Sebastiano Luciani known as Sebastiano del Piombo (c. 1485, Venice – June 21, 1547, Rome)
Femme nue, debout, les bras derrière le dos, la tête inclinée à gauche
Initial drawing for St Agatha
Black and white stone on paper
0.353m x 0.188m
Musée du Louvre département des Arts graphiques, Paris

Earlier this week was the Feast of St Agatha, martyr.

The life of St Agatha is told here.

This is one of the most famous paintings of the martyrdom of St Agatha.

Saint Agatha was martyred in the town of Catania in Sicily in the mid-third century. The mountain in the distant landscape at centre left perhaps refers to the legend that Etna erupted on Agatha's death; the city below it is most likely Catania.

There is a ledge in the foreground of the image, which bears the artist`s signature and the date--SEBASTIANUS VENETUS FACIEBAT ROME MDXX--a common device for this type of work, recalling the entrance to a tomb.

It was commissioned by Cardinal Ercole Rangoni (ca. 1491-1527), who had been created a cardinal in 1517 by Pope Leo X. His titular church in Rome was S. Agata dei Goti. He died in the Sack of Rome.

On 3 July 1517 Pope Leo X created thirty-one new cardinals, a number almost unprecedented in the history of the papacy. Leo took advantage of a plot of several of its members of the College of Cardinals to poison him, not only to inflict exemplary punishments by executing one and imprisoning several others, but also to make a radical change in the college. Ercole Rangoni was a Medici placeman in the College.

A younger son of an elite Modenese family, Rangone had been brought to Rome in the train of Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici in 1512

Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (later Pope Clement VII), paid for Saint Agatha, presumably as a gift to his friend and client, Ercole Rangoni

Some have wondered that the drawing was made after a female model, other have proposed that it is an imaginative reconstruction of an antique torso.

There are clear signs from the picturer that the female figure portrayed is meant to be as beautiful and erotically desirable as the Venus sculpture it mimics.

The facial type of Sebastiano's Saint Agatha was in vogue in Rome at the time. It is the probable representation of a contemporary woman in the guise of a saint, presented semi-naked in the pose of a fragment of a classical sculpture of Venus

It is clearly documented that at this time there was a problem calling up lascivious rather than pious desire in the viewer through images of beautiful saints.

It was against paintings such as these that the reformers in the Council of Trent railed and acted against. In 1563, the Council of Trent ruled that in religious images, "figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust."

The reformers were not exercising a prudish dislike of nudity, but were consciously rejecting a new genre of image, one that deliberately, and intentionally, exploited equivocal--and sometimes contradictory--social notions about flesh, sexuality, and spirituality