This beautiful composition on stone is still an enigma, despite our research. The representation of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is directly inspired by an engraving by Schelte Adams Bolswert (ca. 1586 - 1659), after an altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), completed in 1621. The presence of a label on the back indicating that this panel was brought from Rome, suggests that it is a Roman work, however, at this stage, it has not been possible to establish the exact name of the artist. The French framing makes it a true European work of art, testifying both to the circulation of forms between Flanders and Italy thanks to the spread of engravings, but also to the circulation of works of art between Italy and France.
Oil on alabaster panel, probably of antique origin
9 7/16” (24 cm) diameter; 18 ½” x 16 ½” (47 x 42 cm) framed
French frame from the Louis XIV period in a mixture of gilded and carved wood and ebony marquetry inlaid with pewter fillets.
1. A well identified source of inspiration: the altarpiece of the Assumption by Rubens
The Assumption of the Virgin is based on a large altarpiece designed by Rubens between 1611/14 and 1621. This altarpiece was originally executed for the cathedral of Antwerp but was exhibited from 1621 to 1776 in the Marian chapel of the Jesuit church in that city. It is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Austria) .
The figure of the Virgin in Rubens' altarpiece is reversed on our panel, and the colors of the Virgin's garments are different. These two elements show that the real source of inspiration for the painter of our panel is probably the engraving made from this altarpiece by Schelte Adams Bolswert (ca. 1586 - 1659) for the printer Martinus van den Enden (1605 - after 1654).
A comparison between the engraving made after Rubens' work and our work shows that the treatment of the Virgin and her drapery are very similar.
2. A panel probably of Roman origin
Stone painting appeared in Rome around 1530, and then spread to other Italian artistic centres (Florence, Venice, Genoa, Milan and Verona) as well as outside the peninsula, particularly to Antwerp. It is interesting to note the role of Rubens in the spread of this pictorial tradition on stone in Flanders. Rubens had in fact learned this technique while working in Rome between 1606 and 1608 on a triptych on slate for the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella. It was after his return to Flanders that certain painters discovered stone painting in their turn.
It seems however, that, despite the Rubenian inspiration, our panel is a Roman work. A label on the back indicates that the panel was brought from Rome. This inscription, made partially illegible by the addition of a suspension hook, reads as follows
"This table [...]
is painted by * (*The Correggio) on oriental alabaster
of a choice (particularly ?) [...] perfectly imitating
a glory all the more [...] as the lights come
from above; which has (decided?) the skilful painter to compose his
figure to take advantage [...] of the contrasts (of ?) lights
accidental - so that the composition has been so
studied that it could not be otherwise flawless.
[...] belongs to Mr. Henri François Bernard
who [...] from someone who had it [...] from Rome. "
Beyond the erroneous nature of the attribution to Correggio, typical of an era in which knowledge of the great artists was in its infancy, this label leads us to believe that this painting was indeed purchased in Rome, unframed, allowing it to be transported more easily, and then brought back and framed in France - we will come back to this.
The very high quality of the alabaster used and the subtlety of its colouring suggests the reuse of ancient material. It was at the end of the 16th century that painters began to use the motifs present in the stone in their compositions, and alabaster became - along with precious lapis lazuli - one of the most sought-after materials, despite its very high cost. We know, for example, that in 1610, Teodoro della Porta sold antique alabaster sawn into thin panels to be used as a support by painters .
The flowered alabaster, also sometimes called sardony, is the one that most resembles our panel. It is an opaque alabaster with bands, spots or clouds of various colours ranging from yellow to red. The exact origin of this stone is unknown but it might come from Asia Minor.
In his reference book on ancient marbles, Raniero Gnoli devotes a chapter to alabaster and onyx. The most beautiful pieces of flowered alabaster are called "Palombara", from the name of a curious 17th century Roman, the Marquis Palombara (1614 - 1680) who owned a villa on the Esquiline in which beautiful specimens, used in ancient times as pavements, were unearthed in the 17th century. This villa had in fact been built on the villa of the Aelii Lamia family, a villa that later became an imperial property.
Our panel was probably painted between 1630 and 1650 and it seems likely that the support is a reuse of antique alabaster, as was common at the time for this rather rare material.
3. An original composition
Beyond the figure of the Virgin, directly inspired by Rubens (on an inverted base), the painter has completely recomposed the painting since the Virgin now appears isolated, in the middle of the composition. The painter plays with the different shades of this alabaster plate to evoke the clouds on which the body of the Virgin stands out. The creation of a celestial zone above her (which did not exist in Rubens' composition or in the engraving) allows him to include about fifteen angel heads, each with a very specific physiognomy.
The treatment of the angels can be compared with that of Antonio Tempesta (1555 - 1630) in another work on alabaster representing on one side the Annunciation of the Virgin, and on the other, Christ appearing to the Virgin, currently exhibited at the Saint Louis Art Museum. This very Italian style treatment contributes to the Roman rather than Flemish attribution that we give to this composition. It demonstrates the interest for forms created by Rubens and spread by engraving in the Roman artistic milieu of the 17th century.
4. A European collaboration
This painting is presented in a beautiful French frame in typical Louis XIV style, topped by a shell surrounded by floral scrolls. We believe the frame was made after the arrival of the alabaster panel in France, probably by a Parisian workshop during the second half of the 17th century.
This setting gives this Flemish-influenced painting from Rome a pan-European dimension, which testifies to both the circulation of forms and works of art in the mid-17th century.
Main bibliographic references:
Judith W. Mann (editor) - Paintings on Stone - Science and the Sacred 1530-1800 - 2020 Hirmer Publishers Munich
Raniero Gnoli Marmora Romana - Roma Edizione dell'Elefante 1971
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