From Rome to Eternity: Catholicism and the Arts in Italy, ca. 1550-1650

By Pamela M. Jones; Thomas Worcester | Go to book overview

[BEING LUSTFUL, HE WOULD DELIGHT IN HER
BEAUTY]: LOOKING AT SAINT AGATHA IN
SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY ITALY1

James Clifton

Her left arm slung over the back of a chair, she leans back slightly, her head shifted to one side, mouth just open, eyelids half-lowered, as she looks at the viewer from the corner of her eyes. Her apparently long hair is tied loosely at the back and creates a distinct, curved silhouette against the indeterminate background. A loose white chemise is opened in front, revealing a creamy white expanse of throat, chest, and shoulder. Her right hand, loosely holding a long but gathered white cloth, is raised to her breast. She is exquisitely beautiful (Fig. 1). She has always been identified, correctly, as the virgin martyr Saint Agatha, but only the traces of blood on her shirt, scarf, and skin suggest such an identification. The sensuality of the figure is complemented by a sensuousness of execution, particularly evident in the soft tenebrism at the neck, the undulating lines of the chemise and scarf, and the shot colors of the robe. This half-length figure of ca. 1640 is one of several paintings of Saint Agatha by the Neapolitan Francesco Guarino.2 In these paintings and representations of Saint Agatha by other artists, sacred and profane are often mixed uncomfortably, even paradoxically. While a singular meaning for such pictures may prove elusive, it is clear that they could (and still can) exercise a powerful effect on viewers, an effect that neither the artists, nor early modern Catholic theologians writing on art, nor even the viewers themselves might be able to control.

1 I am grateful to Andrea Bayer for suggestions, to Angi Elsea for assistance with
materials at the Vatican library, and to Thomas Willette for his advice at an early
stage of research and a close reading of a draft of this essay. All translations are
mine unless otherwise noted. This essay is dedicated to the memory of John Rupert
Martin.

2 Guarino had been trained in Naples by Massimo Stanzione and, though active
mostly outside of Naples, working especially for the Gravina family, he remained
an essential force in Neapolitan painting of the primo Seicento. His paintings of the
martyrdom of Saint Agatha in the parish church of his native Sant'Agata Irpina,
near Solofra, were remarkable enough to gain mention and praise as [egregiamente

-143-

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