Painting of the month for April 2016

The Burial of St. Petronilla

1621-23. Oil on canvas Capitolini Museum, Rome

This is a painting that I have been meaning to use as POTM since I saw it in Rome in 2014. Despite not having a good memory, I vividly remember walking into the gallery at the Musei Capitolini, and being overwhelmed by it. Firstly by the size of it (is is about 7 x 4 metres), and secondly by the beauty of it. St Petronilla was famed for her purity, ‘the golden Petronilla, the sweetest daughter’ was inscribed upon her tomb. Some believe her father to be the apostle St Peter, and it was for a chapel in St Peter’s basilica that this painting was commissioned. The artist has captured the saint’s burial and ascension all in one scene.

The canvas is divided into two diagonally, with the earthly realm below and heavenly above. The tomb is at eye-level, which puts us as the viewer beside the grave and encourages us to look up. A pair of hands rise out of the space to receive Petronilla’s body down into the grave. We see her from an angle painted with staggeringly virtuosity, her flower-wreathed head tilted back so that we can see her face. Two men lowering the body down with makeshift straps of cloth do so with care and solemnity, their muscular arms tensing and hands gripping firmly so as not to drop the precious load. The face of the elder man on the left is surely straight out of a Caravaggio painting, that furrowed brow and scraggly beard are very familiar. Seven surrounding figures mourn the saint, each showing different emotions. The details of classical architectural serve as a stage to the drama, focusing our attention in on the action. The large stone steps enhance this feeling, bringing the action further towards us and away from the expanse of blue sky backdrop. There is an inscription on the step at the bottom right corner dedicates the work to Pope Gregory XV, in whose service Guercino was in at the time.

The painting is divided by what appears to be a level of clouds, which Petronilla has travelled up to be received by Jesus. She kneels before him, arms crossed over her chest, her head bowed in reverence. She is dressed resplendently, in rich red and gold clothes, adorned with gold jewellery and her hair braided; very differently from the simple white dress she is being buried in. Christ welcomes her to heaven with open arms, stepping towards her in a swathe of cobalt blue cloth, as if he is about to lift her up. The two figures are surrounded by angels and cherubs, who swirl around them, one above them is flying down with a crown to put on Petronilla’s head.

I love the energy of this painting, it sucks you in and guides your eye around it. It has all the extravagance and vivid colours of the Baroque, but it is combined with a naturalism in the figures poses and emotions. This is something that Guercino does particularly well. The fluidity of the composition can be put down to his skills as a draughtsman, he worked through preparatory sketches to get the desired result. The use of jewel-like tones, especially blues, reds and golds, really bind and balance the movement within the painting. There are a lot of textures in the painting; from the crisp white shirt of the boy holding a candle, peering over at the body from the left, the canary yellow velvet cushion on the curiously places chaise longue, and the red brocade fabric hung around the saint. In a painting depicting a dramatic event that is so rich in detail, it is miraculously quiet.