Milan 1607 – 1665
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
oil on copper
8 ½ x 6 ½ inches
21.5 x 16.5 cm
This small painting on copper captures with exquisite refinement the ecstasy of Catherine of Alexandria as she receives the crown of martyrdom. According to the Golden Legend, the beautiful young princess Catherine, who lived during the fourth century in Alexandria, confronted the Emperor Maxentius about his persecution of Christians. Maxentius summoned fifty pagan philosophers and orators to debate with her and dissuade her from her faith in Christ, but the learned Catherine rebutted their claims so well that they all converted. This roused the emperor’s wrath, and he condemned her to death. The Emperor decided to execute her using a spiked wheel. The wheels, however, were broken through divine intervention. In the end, she was beheaded, and milk flowed from her severed head. In the present painting, Catherine, dressed in sumptuous pink and yellow silks, kneels upon a fragment of broken wheel. In the left foreground is a lily, an allusion to her virginity, and in the right foreground is a book, an emblem of her great learning. Upon the wheel sits the golden diadem she has removed so that she might receive the crown of martyrdom, a circlet of roses borne by an angel descending from the heavens which have opened to form a halo around her. Catherine swoons in ecstasy, proffering her neck to her executioner, whose sword rests in the painting’s foreground.
When the painting, the artist’s only known work on copper, first came to the art market in 1979, it was attributed to the circle of Paul Troger. Pierre Rosenberg was the first scholar to associate the work with Francesco Cairo, and this attribution has never been in doubt since. The saint’s pose, in particular the bend of her neck, can be found again and again throughout Cairo’s oeuvre, in particular in his half-length figures of women drawn from the Bible and history, like the Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist in Turin (fig 1). In most cases these works depict an equivocal moment of extreme emotion, and together these tragic heroines (and anti-heroines) seem to reveal a morbid fascination with violence and death. The present painting is unusual for showing the figure full-length, although a parallel pose can be found on a much larger scale in Cairo’s altarpiece depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (fig 2). On the basis of comparison with such works, this small cabinet painting is generally dated around 1630, during Cairo’s last years in Milan, before his departure in 1633 for Turin where he became court painter to Victor-Amadeus I, Duke of Savoy. Moreover, the painting’s dramatic lighting, richly worked surfaces, and shallow pictorial space are consistent with Milanese painting of the 1620s. As can be seen in this work, Cairo excelled at representing mystical visions with intense emotion fundamental to Baroque devotional iconography, and his early cabinet pictures of macabre and morbid subjects, like the present work, remain his most fascinating achievement.
New York, Sotheby’s, 16 November 1979, lot 170 (as Circle of Paul Troger)
Private collection, New York
Varese, Musei Civici, Francesco Cairo 1607-1665, 1 October – 31 December 1983
New York, Nicholas Hall, Faithful to Nature: Eleven Lombard Painting 1530-1760, 2 November – 23 December 2019
Laura Basso, Francesco Cairo: 1607-1665, Varese, 1983, exh. cat., pp. 96-97, no. 8, reproduced.
Bona Castellotti, La pittura lombarda del ‘600, Milan, 1985, no. 101, reproduced.
Francesco Frangi, Francesco Cairo, Turin, 1997, no. 15, p. 28, reproduced p. 32 and pl. 7.
Francesco Frangi, Francesco Cairo, Turin, 1998, no. 16, p. 238, reproduced fig. 20.
Virginia Brilliant, Faithful to Nature: Eleven Lombard Painting 1530-1760, New York, 2019, exh. cat., pp. 74-75, 102-103, reproduced.