Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Raphael Visits New York 
 

St. Catherine of Alexandria

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto)
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood, 15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In celebration of 2013 Year of Italian Culture in United States, a painting of St. Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael from the Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino, Italy, is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute New York.

Installed in its own room, both the panel's recto and verso can be seen by moving around a centrally placed glass vitrine.  The back (verso) shows a marbled reflection and inscription.  More about this later.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), 
marble reflection and inscription (verso); 
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),

The front (recto) has the image of St. Catherine of Alexandria.


Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520),  
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

Scholars date this panel to the early sixteenth century when Raphael was still working in Urbino, the city of his birth, as well as Citt√† di Castello in the Umbria region of Italy. For those not familiar with Italian regions, Urbino is located in Italy’s Marche region, adjacent to Umbria.

The work's provenance is traced back to the collection of the painter Vicenzo Camuccini (1771 - 1841).  In 1856 a great portion of Camuccini’s painting collection was sold to the Duke of Northumberland.  His purchase primarily comprised paintings by Italian masters of the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries.  The Duke took his acquisitions back home to Alnwick Castle

In 1955, the art historian Roberto Longhi attributed the St. Catherine of Alexandria to Raphael.  At the time, the painting was in the collection of Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi. The Count was a businessman, art collector and dealer. Longhi had been his art advisor from about 1920 until 1945. The Count died in 1955 and his collection was subsequently dispersed (1). The Saint Catherine was acquired by the art dealer Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd. of New York (2). It was subsequently sold to the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.  After he died in 1989, his wife auctioned the Marcos collection.  In 1990, the Italian State purchased the Saint Catherine of Alexandria for the Galleria Nazionale of the region of Marche.

St. Catherine of Alexandria was a fourth century martyr.  She was the daughter of a king who publicly protested the emperor and refused to worship idols.  Catherine was tortured by beatings and imprisonment. An attempt to rip her apart on a spiked wheel failed when the wheel broke into pieces. She was finally beheaded.   The spiked wheel became her attribute.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail  of  St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),  
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel now on exhibit in New York, Raphael depicted the youthful saint holding the martyr’s palm frond.  A halo marks her holiness.  She is a blond beauty with exquisitely rendered hands and feet.  She faces to her right.  Her head is tilted down and eyes lowered as if deep in thought.

Catherine is richly attired as befits a noblewoman.  Her long-sleeved red dress is specked in gold.  Two slender gold bands adorn the edges of its sleeves.  The neckline and hem is trimmed in what appears  to be a deep green border.  The gown's belt is green as well as an overgarment wrapped about her shoulders and secured across the chest by two gold clasps.   Lastly, a voluminous pale golden yellow toga gently envelopes the figure.  Its curving folds echoed by the undulation of the fabric about her hair

She stands barefoot on a spiked wheel.  Her body twists in a classical contrapposto posture - weight mostly on her right foot, left knee slightly bent.  She forms an S-shaped curve. The green ground is undifferentiated.  The dark background is embellished with gold interlocking eight-pointed stars and crucifix forms.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail  of  St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),  
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm), 
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

The small work is packed with meaning.  The palm branch in Christianity alludes to the victory of the spirit over flesh and to resurrection, the triumph over death through the union with  Christ.  The eight-pointed star is symbolic of regeneration, redemption as well as the representation of baptism.  It reflects Jesus’ resurrection on the eighth day and reminds that baptism unites the believer with this miracle.  The cross represents sacrifice and salvation.  Red, the color of blood, alludes to Christian martyrs.  Green denotes the victory of life over death.  Golden yellow signifies purity, an appropriate choice for a virgin martyr.  Bare feet  refers to humility and holiness.  The spiked wheel, of course, is the symbol of her martyrdom.
  
The placement of Catherine’s wheel was innovative.  It is usually depicted upright at the saint’s side.  Raphael used the typical placement in a later painting of St. Catherine of Alexandria in the National Gallery, London as well as in his  Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
St. Catherine of Alexandria, ca. 1507, oil on poplar,
28.4 x 21.9 in. (72.2 x 55.7 cm),
National Gallery, London, U.K.
Photo:  Artstor

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1504, oil and gold on wood,
Main panel, overall 67 7/8 x 67 7/8 in. (172.4 x 172.4 cm), 
painted surface 66 3/4 x 66 1/2 in. (169.5 x 168.9 cm),
Photo:  Artstor

By placing the instrument of torture on the ground, Raphael increased the impression of spatial depth,  allowing ample room for the figure’s three-dimensional pose.  At the same time, the wheel’s position acts as the figure’s pedestal raising this greatly admired saint to a higher level and emphasizing the triumph of the princess martyr.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Saint Mary Magdalene,
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Location unknown,
Photo:  Artstor (3)

A now lost Saint Mary Magdalene painting was the pendant to St. Catherine of Alexandria panel (3).  The Magdalene is almost the mirror image of the Catherine figure.  The figures are posed in the same posture but Magdalene faces her left and her head and gaze are raised.  Her hands are in the gesture of prayer.  

The position of the two saints and the works’ size strongly support the theory that the paintings were the side panels of a small triptych intended for private devotion.  An inscription on the back (verso) of the Saint Catherine of Alexandria provides further evidence for this conclusion.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), 
Detail of marble mirror and inscription (verso) of the the St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto),
ca. 1500-1503, oil on wood,  15.4 x 5.9 in. (39 x 15 cm),
Photo:  Hillary Ganton

In a circle of blue on a marbleized mirror background, elegant gold capital letters read: BENEDI/CAT VIRG/O MARIA.  The invocation, figuratively “May the Virgin Be Blessed”, points to the likelihood that the triptych's central panel would have represented an image of the Virgin Mary, perhaps a Virgin and Child or a Holy Family.

The Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene may have been part of a group of paintings in the possession of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino and his consort Elisabetta Gonzaga (3). When Raphael resided in Urbino, he completed works for the Duke and his wife.  The panels may have been belonged to a painting of the Virgin Mary described by Giorgio Varsari, the sixteenth-century Italian painter, architect, writer and historian.  Varsari wrote that when Raphael lived in Urbino, he made religious paintings including representations of the Madonna.  Specifically, the historian records that Raphael painted two panels of the Virgin Mary for Guidobaldo which were “...piccoli, ma bellissimi”.  Certainly, the Saint Catherine of Alexandria is small yet very beautiful and could have belonged to a triptych with an image of the Madonna in the center panel.  The connection of the Saint Catherine painting with the city of Urbino is further enhanced by the colors used in the inscription on the panel's back:  gold letters on a blue background.  These are the colors of the coat of arms of the city of Urbino.  In addition, Saints Mary Magdalene and Catherine, were among the saints most venerated in this area.  Thus, their appearance together on a work made in Urbino would be fitting.  

The Mary Magdalene and Catherine panels were together in the early twentieth century in Duke of Northumberland's collection at Alnwick Castle.  The panels were next documented in the Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence, Italy and then with Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd., New York.  At this point, the whereabouts of  the Saint Mary Magdalene is unknown.  Perhaps, the painting will turn up one day.  Until then, you may want to be on the look out for it.

Two additional comments:

Raphael was known to have excelled in the particular technique of painting faux marble as executed in high quality on the back of the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
Detail of Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, ca. 1504, oil and gold on wood,
Main panel, overall 67 7/8 x 67 7/8 in. (172.4 x 172.4 cm), 
painted surface 66 3/4 x 66 1/2 in. (169.5 x 168.9 cm),
Photo:  Artstor

The gold speckled decoration of the Madonna’s mantle in Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York is very similar to the Catherine's dress in the St. Catherine of Alexandria panel.

(1) Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955) had bequeathed his art collection of some 1,000 works to the Italian state.  The Count's heirs, however, successfully contested the will.  The overwhelming majority of the collection was sold abroad.  What was left for the state is now part of the Uffizi Gallery and, presently may only be seen by appointment. Contini Bonacossi was found guilty of being a Nazi collaborator and fascist after World War II.  His bequest appears to be a gesture of amends.

(2) The Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel was in the  2009 exhibition, Raffaello e Urbino, that took place in Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino, Italy.  The citation for the painting in the exhibition catalogue, edited by Lorenza Mochi Onori, entry 33, p. 170, states that the painting was acquired by the antiquarian, Spencer of New York after the  break up of the Bonacossi Collection.  I could not find any information about "Spencer of New York".  The exhibition catalogue probably refers to Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd, New York.  Spencer A. Samuels was a world-renowned art dealer and expert on old masters who died at age 85 in 1999.  The information concerning the Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels in Artstor, supplied by  by the Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., states that the Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels were formerly in the Contini Bonacossi Collection, Florence and later with Spencer A. Samuels & Co. Ltd, New York.  
My thanks to Giorgio Civolani for his help in the translation of the Raffaello e Urbino exhibition catalogue entry for the Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel.

(3) I have reproduced below the Artstor black and white image of Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel for its clarity which far surpasses the color image from the  2013 Year of Italian Culture in United States Web site or my own photographic attempts.  The Artstor black and white image of Saint Mary Magdalene panel was the only image of this lost painting that I was able to find.

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483–1520),
St. Catherine of Alexandria (recto), ca. 1507, oil on wood,
28.4 x 21.9 in. (72.2 x 55.7 cm),
National Gallery, London, U.K.
Photo:  Artstor

The black and white images and information associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene panels were supplied to Artstor by the Department of Image Collections, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.  The   data for both panels attribute the work to Raphael and state that the location of both panels are unknown.  The dimensions of the panels were not furnished in the Artstor citations. I have assumed that the two paintings have the same dimensions and used the dimensions of the Saint Catherine of Alexandria panel for the label description of the Saint Mary Magdalene image. 

(3) See Raffaello e Urbino exhibition catalogue entry 33, p. 170 concerning this hypothesis.

St. Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
October 1 to October 28, 2013 
Monday - Saturday,
10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m 

686 Park Avenue, New York, NY

1 comment:

Isa Goldberg said...

This is a highly erudite and informative article. So glad I got to read it.
Isa Goldberg