Religious Art Rocks in the St. Louis Art Museum’s “Paintings on Stone” Exhibition

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547), “Portrait of Pope Clement VII” (about 1531), oil on slate (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles)

Exhibit explores how artists used stone to dramatic and emotional effect in portraiture and depictions of the sacred from the Renaissance through the 18th century

The January 2000 purchase of Cavaliere d’Arpino’s exquisite “Perseus rescuing Andromeda” by Judith W. Mann, curator of European art before 1800 at the Saint Louis Art Museum, stimulated the creation of her magisterial exhibition “Paintings on Stone: Science and the Sacred, 1530-1800,” on view at the museum until May 15. The 74 works on view were chosen from a checklist of more than 1400 examples identified over the course of the last 20 years.

The basic techniques of painting on stone had been known for centuries, but they were single-handedly reinvigorated by one great 16th-century artist, Sebastiano del Piombo, whose biographer Giorgio Vasari celebrated his “discovery” while another contemporary lauded Sebastiano’s goal “to make a picture nothing less than eternal.”

School of Fontainebleau, “The Minions of Henri III” (1570s), oil on slate (Milwaukee Art Museum)

Agnolo Bronzino, attributed to (1503-1572), “Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici” (about 1560), oil on red porphyry (The Abelló Collection, Madrid)

The foremost painter in Rome for nearly three decades, Sebastiano aspired to use dark slate as the support for depictions of both religious subjects and life-size portraits. His austere portrait of “Pope Clement VII de’ Medici” in the Getty Museum is typically painted on a large slab of slate whose surface is entirely covered by pigment. But Sebastiano also recognized that the nearly-black stone itself — if left bare — could reinforce the emotional impact of his paintings destined for pious contemplation, such as his numerous representations of Christ carrying the Cross (made mostly for Spanish aristocrats). And it was recognition of the fact that the color or other physical properties of a stone could amplify the “message” of an artwork that both expanded the repertoire of rocks preferred by artists and radically changed the ways they were used for paintings.

Pope Clement’s younger relation, Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574), for example, fully appreciated that red porphyry had been used by the Romans to create imperial portraits. He commissioned several all’antica porphyry profiles of himself — set into marble ovals, like giant cameos — and on at least one occasion allowed his likeness to be painted on red porphyry, thus conferring on himself the gravitas of Antiquity. The Florentine duke’s coeval but distant cousin Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France (1519-1589), is known to have commissioned portraits on slate from Italy, and she may well have been the patron of an extraordinary triple portrait of three of the minions (alleged homosexual lovers) of her son, Henri III of France (1551-1589). All three met violent deaths in 1578; by then, profile portraits were archaistic except for commemorative purposes, an implication that is echoed by the solid black background — circumstantial evidence which lends credibility to the tentative identification of the sitters.

Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), “Annunciation” (1602-05), oil on alabaster backed with slate (the Allana Collection, Newark)

As the exhibition demonstrates, black backgrounds were most often used to evoke nocturnal settings, wherein natural phenomena (such as volcanic eruptions) illuminate the darkness, or scenes of profound emotion (such as episodes from the Passion of Christ) are enacted, lit with great dramatic effect by flames, the moon, or some “off-stage” spotlight. None is more visually thrilling than Jacques Stella’s “Judith at Prayer,” on loan from the Borghese Gallery in Rome. Painted on highly reflective Belgian “marble” — a slight geological misnomer — and meticulously highlighted with gold paint, Judith does not display the severed head of Holofernes (still asleep in a drunken stupor) but prays for resolve to carry out her fateful mission; putti, meanwhile, gamely extract the Assyrian general’s sword from its sheath. The drama inside his tent is illuminated by a great candle in the foreground, and the picture must have been dazzling when viewed in actual candlelight.

A different mood — one of intimate and intense piety — is on display in Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s “Nativity” from Houston. This is one of a trio of devotional pictures painted for Justino de Neve, a learned collector, priest and canon of the cathedral of Seville when that city was still the international commercial capital of the Spanish empire. Among the rarest of imported goods were mirrors fashioned from obsidian by the Aztecs of Mexico, by whom they were imbued with profound spiritual significance. It is most likely that the sophisticated prelate supplied such precious panels for Murillo’s re-purpose when he commissioned these paintings for private worship and contemplation.

Jacques Stella (1596-1657), “Judith at Prayer” (1631), oil on Belgian “marble” with gold paint (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavaliere d’Arpino (1568-1640), “Perseus rescuing Andromeda” (about 1593-94), oil on lapis lazuli backed with slate (Saint Louis Art Museum)

Finally, the exhibition has many excellent examples of the use of stone as a pictorial device — as an element which could be manipulated for illusionistic effect to create a picture. The Cavaliere d’Arpino chose a tiny sheet of lapis lazuli — that rare rock of Afghan origin — for one of his several renditions of the tale of “Perseus rescuing Andromeda” because it could be used “as is” to imitate both the sky and the blue-green water of the sea. Flecked with sprinklings of yellow-gold pyrite and streaks or patches of white calcite, lapis evokes the cosmos — sometimes the Milky Way — and thereby transports an earthbound event to the otherworldly realm of myth or the divine.

Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg (1637-1676), “Interior of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp” (1668), oil on marble (Rubenshuis, Antwerp)

Orazio Gentileschi brilliantly exploited the whorls and occlusions in translucent alabaster to create a light-filled aura in which the angel Gabriel descends on clouds to announce the imminent birth of Jesus. At the right, he left the stone unpainted and allowed it to emulate the color and superficial patterns of “marble” columns and the prie-dieu at which the Virgin Mary kneels. But even such an audacious feat of illusionism is trumped by the trompe-l’oeil artefice of Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg, who used a large slab of white marble (41 inches square) for his depiction of the “Interior of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp.” Not only does the bare white stone substitute for the architecture of the building but, in a double tour de force, the marble slab is actually a remnant of the stone used to construct the church!

The exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue including important (but accessible) essays by several scholars, excellent and admirably documented entries for 103 individual paintings (almost all by Mann), a comprehensive bibliography of the subject, and an appendix which identifies (and, thankfully, illustrates) most of the different types of stone deployed by artists of the period.

“Paintings on Stone: Science and The Sacred, 1530-1800” continues at the Saint Louis Art Museum, One Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, Saint Louis, through May 15. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Closed Monday. For more information, www.slam.org.

Roger Ward

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Roger Ward was a Chester Dale Fellow at the National Gallery of Art and Marshall Scholar at the University of London, where he completed his PhD in 16th-century Italian art. He was the first Adelaide C. Ward Curator of European Art at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and later worked on behalf of several institutions including the Norton Museum of Art and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Florence, Italy). His publications have mostly to do with artists of Rome and Florence but also comprise Claude Monet, Robert Henri, and Marie Hull.

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