Now on view in the National Gallery, London
The National Gallery purchased the life-size painting of Saint Bartholomew by Bernardo Cavallino at Sotheby’s New York back in January 2023 from the Fisch Davidson collection – one of the most important collections of Baroque art ever to appear on the market. The cost was $3.9 million (hammer $3.2m). This depiction of Saint Bartholomew, a most splendid work by Cavallino, dates to the 1640s, when the Neapolitan artist was at the height of his artistic powers.
Saint Bartholomew sits alone in the wilderness. His expression is one of grim determination, at once horrified and resolved. Enveloped in the folds of his mantle, he turns towards us, unable to look at the knife clasped in his left hand. This will be the tool of his martyrdom, for Bartholomew was flayed alive. One of the Twelve Apostles, Bartholomew was said to have preached the gospel in India and in Armenia. When he refused to make a sacrifice to the local gods, he was horribly killed, first stripped of his skin and then beheaded. Gruesome depictions of Bartholomew’s martyrdom were popular in seventeenth-century Naples and often showed the act of flaying in progress. This painting’s power comes from how extremely it has been pared back. Bartholomew is the sole protagonist in this almost monochromatic, intensely psychological picture. Stark light illuminates the mantle and the flesh, which provides the only colour in a work otherwise composed of silvery grey tones. We are not confronted here with violence: rather, it is the threat and imminence of violence that is so menacing. Instead of witnessing Bartholomew’s flayed flesh, the picture is dominated by the creamy mantle, whose folds are so elaborate that they cannot help but make us think of skin. Whether in the crisply delineated edges of the fabric or the strong sense of outline created by pulling the white paint right up to the flesh, everything seems to allude to layers and unpeeling, the act of incision unseen but ever-present.
Bernardo Cavallino (1616 – 1656?) was one of the leading Neapolitan artists of the first half of the 17th Century. While many details of his life and career remain shrouded in mystery, he was renowned in his lifetime for his small, sensitive paintings of mythological and biblical subjects which he painted for a private clientele. Cavallino probably received his training in Naples, the city of his birth. He was strongly influenced by Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), and seems to have mostly worked for private patrons, producing small, sensitive paintings of mythological and Biblical subjects. This life-size depiction of Saint Bartholomew, with its drama and intensity, is one of Cavallino’s masterpieces. Although we do not know for whom he painted it, its size and grandeur suggest it was an important commission. It probably dates from the latter years of the artist’s life, in which he became increasingly focussed on the emotional power of his works. Just eight of Cavallino’s known works are signed or initialled, and only one is dated. Cavallino probably died during the plague that devastated Naples in 1656. He was well regarded in the decades following his death, but knowledge of his paintings – which were often mistaken for the work of other painters – remained rudimentary until the second half of the 20th century when scholars developed a fuller sense of his poetic contribution to 17th Century art.
The influence of the Jusepe de Ribera is immediately apparent in Cavallino’s Saint Bartholomew, which recalls Ribera’s life-size portrayals of saints from the late 1630s and 1640s and resonates profoundly with Ribera’s near-contemporaneous depiction of the same saint, today in the Prado, Madrid.
The whereabouts of Cavallino’s Saint Bartholomew were untraced until it was sold in 1903 (as by Ribera) at Christie’s, London. It next resurfaced in 1988, after which the painting’s correct attribution to Cavallino was reinstated. The painting was last exhibited in public in 1993, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in in New York, so the public will now be able to enjoy it for the first time in 30 years. Saint Bartholomew is on display alongside other Italian 17th Century Baroque masterpieces in Room 32 of the National Gallery, London, where Saint Bartholomew will make its natural home among pictures by artists such as Caravaggio, Artemisia and Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, Reni and Ribera.
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