Isaac Levitan. Part 2 – The later years

Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)
Portrait of Anton Chekhov by Isaac Levitan (1886)

Anton Chekhov, the writer and physician, was born in January 1860.  He was the third of six children and was brought up in the coastal town of Taganrog which lay on the north shore of the Sea of Azov in southern Russia.  In 1876, when he was sixteen years old his father, Pavel, was in the process of building a new house but ran out of money and was mired in a huge debt.  Rather than face the prospect of languishing in a debtors prison he escaped the town and moved to Moscow where his elder sons, Alexander and Nikolai were studying. Alexander was attending Moscow University and Nikolai was an art student at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.  Anton Chekhov remained behind in Taganrog to finish his studies at the local secondary school and was also charged with the task of selling the family’s possessions.  It was not until three years later in 1879 that Anton Chekhov joined the family in Moscow.

Anton Chekhov enrolled at the Moscow State Medical University and it was shortly after arriving in Moscow that he was introduced to Isaac Levitan by his brother Nikolai who was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow School of Painting.  Anton Chekhov was just eight months older than Levitan and the close friendship between the two great men of the Russian Arts steadily grew and it would last until the end of their lives.  This was a coming together of two Masters of Russian literature and the visual arts, and this close camaraderie led to a close style in the way the two considered and dealt with artistic challenges, so much so that their names are often quoted side by side both in specialized literature and popular writings.

The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)
The Watermill, Sunset by Isaac Levitan (1880)

Levitan completed a beautiful but small landscape painting, The Watermill, Sunset.  It measured just 33cms x 52cms.  He painted this work in the summer of 1880 when he was spending time in the small riverside town of Plyos on the banks of the mighty Volga River.  Levitan loved the area and this period could be looked upon as one of the happiest times of his life. His friend Anton Chekhov said that when his artist friend and he were in Plyos he could detect a smile on Isaac’s face.  Sadly, because of family tragedies and his unending fight against poverty, Levitan rarely smiled and was often the victim of melancholia.

Isaac Levitan had developed a great love of nature which almost certainly originated from his time at the Moscow School of Painting and the time he spent with one of his tutors, the Russian landscape painter, Alexei Savrasov.  Savrasov was one of the most eminent of all 19th century Russian landscape artists and was renowned for his lyrical style and melancholic works of art.  He was looked upon as the creator of the lyrical landscape style.

In all, Levitan painted this view three times.  The first, which we see above, is housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the other two, which were painted later, form part of two private Russian collections.  The scene is set at sunset and the mill is in shadow whilst the forest, on the opposite side of the river in the background is bathed in evening sunlight.  The light slants in from the right illuminating the far bank.  It is the ending of the day and although the blue skies suggest otherwise, the location will soon be cast in darkness.  In the foreground, the focal point is the wooden mill and the small rickety bridge which crosses over the small waterfall, the water of which powers the mill.  In many of Levitan’s paintings he depicts small bridges crossing over water along with jetties which often had boats moored to them.

Levitan’s moody landscapes and the artists and poets who had influenced this style of art were commented upon by Alexandre Benois in his 1916 book, The Russian School of Painting.  He wrote:

“…He brought to a summation that which Vasiliev, Savrasov and Polenov had foretold.  Levitan discovered the peculiar charm of Russian landscape “moods”; he found a distinctive style to Russian landscape art which would have been distinguished illustrations to the poetry of Pushkin, Koltzov, Gogol, Turgenyev and Tyutchev.  He rendered the inexplicable charm of our humble poverty, the shoreless breadth of our virginal expanses, the festal sadness of the Russian autumn, and the enigmatic call of the Russian spring.  There are no human beings in his paintings, but they are permeated with a deep emotion which floods the human heart…”

To supplement his income Levitan gave private painting lessons and he collaborated with the Chekhov brothers on the illustrated magazine “Moscow”.  Levitan also spent time spent time on the popular Russian magazines, “Raduga” (Rainbow) in1883) and “Volna” (Wave) in 1884, where he worked on graphics and lithographs for the publications.  He also collaborated with illustrations for Mikhail Fabritsius’ guide book, The Kremlin in Moscow.  During the summers of the mid and late 1880’s Levitan spent much of his time with the Chekhov family, who had a summer residence on the Babkino estate close to the banks of the Istra River.   The estate was owned by Alexsei Kiselev and he and his wife Marila would entertain artists and writers at their many soirees.  Levitan eventually moved into the Chekhovs home and set up his own studio.   One painting he completed in 1886, whilst staying with the Chekhovs was The Istra River.

In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)
In the Crimean Mountains by Isaac Levitan (1886)

His impoverished upbringing during which he often had no idea where or when his next meal would come from combined with the stress of being an artist trying to eke out a living had affected his health and he was diagnosed as having a degenerative heart disease and advised to move to a warmer climate further to the south of the country and so in late March 1886 Isaac Levitan visited the Crimea for the first time.  It was here that he completed more than sixty sketches and paintings during his two months sojourn including one entitled In the Crimean Mountains which depicted an area around the town of Feodosiya, in eastern Crimea.  It is a painting which manages to capture the bright sun and the intense heat of the mountainous setting.  Levitan exhibited all the sketches he had completed whilst staying in the Crimea at the Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL).  All were purchased and with that success came financial stability for Isaac Levitan.

Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)
Evening on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1888)

Between 1887 and 1890 Levitan would travel far and wide spending the long summer months in small towns along the Volga River, such as Plës (Plyos) and Vasil’sursk and two of his paintings of that time, Evening on the Volga (1888) and Evening: The Golden Plyos (1889) depicted the beauty of the river and the townships, which were situated on the banks of the great waterway, during the hours of sunset.

Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)
Evening: Golden Ples by Isaac Levitan (1889)

Levitan painted the Volga River scenes in various weather and light conditions and by doing so was able to convey associated moods.  The Volga series established Levitan as the painter of the landscape of mood and his style became popular with other Moscow landscape artists of the time.

The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Mediterranean Coast by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan realised that much could be learnt from European artists and so, in March 1890, he embarked on a tour visiting Berlin and Paris and the Cote d’Azur towns of Nice and Menton.  From his visit to the south of France, he completed a work entitled The Mediterranean Coast which is a truly beautiful depiction of the multi-coloured sea and the pebbled shoreline.  He went on to Italy and visited Venice and Florence, Germany and Switzerland.  However Levitan was a true Russian and despite the lure of the artistic life in the European capitals he preferred to return to his homeland.

In March 1891 Isaac Levitan became a member of the Society of Travelling Art Exhibitions, and by the end of the year, displayed ten of his paintings at a Moscow Society of Art Lovers (MSAL) exhibition. His exhibits met with unreserved acclaim from both his fellow artists and the public.

Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)
Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Another of Levitan’s works of art I really like was completed in 1890, ten years after The Watermill painting, and was entitled Quiet Abode, The Silent Monastery.  The monastery in question is the Krivooserski Monastery which is close to the river town of Yuryevets, located at the confluence of the Unzha and the Volga Rivers, some 350 kilometres north east of Moscow.   Levitan had visited the area in the summer of 1890.  In the painting we see the monastery in the background nestled amongst the high trees with just the ornate cupolas peaking above the tree canopy.   In the foreground we can see a curved rickety wooden-planked bridge which traverses the slow-flowing river.  The surface of the river shimmers in the sunlight.  Look how beautifully Levitan has depicted the reflection of the monastery and the trees in this still expanse of water.

Anton Chekhov was so impressed with his friend’s painting that he introduced it into his 1895 novel, Three Years, in which he had the heroine of the story, Yulia Sergeievna, visit an Easter Week art exhibition and stand in front of what he described as

“…a small landscape… In the foreground was a stream, over it a little wooden bridge...”

Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)
Above the Eternal Peace by Isdaac Levitan (1894)

One of the most haunting works by Levitan was his painting entitled Above the Eternal Peace which he completed in 1894.  The first thing that strikes you about this evocative work is it is the depiction of an endless landscape.  In the background we have a beautiful depiction of threatening heavy grey clouds which are  intermingled with fluffy white ones, all of which are reflected on to the still waters of the lake below.  In the foreground, sitting isolated on a verdant promontory which juts into the lake, is a small church with its gleaming silver cupola.  Behind the church is the graveyard.  It is separated from the church by some birch trees which have been bent over by strong winds.  The graveyard looks abandoned and is rather overgrown and some of the crosses have lean over from the constant force of a strong wind which raced unhindered across the exposed promontory.  The picture was painted on the shore of Lake Udomlia in Tver province, 250 kilometres north of Moscow.

Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)
Vladimirka by Isaac Levitan (1892)

My final offering is another haunting work of art, not for its pictorial depiction but because where and what it is being depicted.   It was a depiction of a well-trodden road which led convicts towards their penal colonies in Siberia.  The painting is entitled The Vladimirka Road and Levitan completed it in 1892.  The Vladimir Highway familiarly known as the Vladimirka was a 190-kilometre road which went from Moscow to Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod, Siberia in the east.  Siberia was at this time the customary place of exile, and this road depicted in the painting saw an endless movement of prisoners in shackles being marched from Moscow to the Siberian penal colonies.  Levitan’s work of art is not just another landscape painting it is a combination of his realistic vision with a message.  Before us is a somewhat desolate landscape but the point of the painting is to remind people, who look at the depiction, of the traumatic history of the road.  It was about exile but it was not just about the exile of prisoners to Siberia.  Levitan himself probably reflected on his own life at the time as in 1892 through to the beginning of 1893, by order of the Moscow governor-general, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, about 20,000 Jews were deported from Moscow.  Isaac Levitan was among those forced from his home and this expulsion because of his religion had traumatised him.

Everything about the painting reflects his troubled mind.  Levitan has depicted the sky and the fields in dull and rather uninviting tones.  Before us we have a flat and almost lifeless landscape with just the odd trees in the background.  There is little or no vegetation and the path has been almost reduced to gravel due to the thousands of prisoners who had been marched along it over the years.   Look at the colours he has used.  Instead of bright greens and yellows he has gone for dull browns and lacklustre darker greens. The sky is grey with no hint of blue to uplift the painting.  There is no sign of the sun which would have brightened the landscape but that was not the intention of the artist.  There are no people depicted as he and many other realistic landscape artists believed the inclusion of people into a landscape painting  detracted from the surroundings.  Most of Levitan’s landscapes are without people.  This work of art was termed a mood landscape in which the artist has transferred his mood into the way he depicts the scene.  There is nothing uplifting about the view.  There is nothing in the scene that would raise one’s spirits but that is just as Levitan wanted it to be.  It was Levitan’s way of depicting hopelessness.  It was the historical hopelessness of those who trudged their way to what would simply be slave labour.  It was his own feeling of despair at his plight as a persecuted Jew.

To put a more uplifting spirit to this road the Bolsheviks, post-Russian Revolution, renamed it Shosse Entuziastov (“Enthusiasts’ Highway”) and many years later it became known as the Volga Motorway.

In March 1894 Levitan moved to the Tver Region, and later to Gorki.  His health was deteriorating and by 1895 the degenerative heart disease which had been diagnosed ten years earlier was making life more difficult for Levitan.  He was in constant pain and had little energy.  His physical ailment triggered mental health issues in the form of depression and it was known that on a number of occasions he attempted to end his life.  The only thing which gave him happiness was his love of nature.  In 1897, he had become world-renowned as a landscape painter and  he was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts  and in 1898 he was named the head of the Landscape Studio at his alma mater, the Moscow School of Painting.

The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)
The Lake by Isaac Levitan (1890)

Levitan spent the last year of his life at Chekhov’s home in the Crimea.  Even though Levitan was aware that he was dying his last works were ones of brightness of colour.  An example of this is one which remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1890.  It was entitled The Lake although Levitan called it Rus’.  It is believed that he labelled the work thus as he believed the painting reflect ed tranquillity and the eternal beauty of Russian nature and embodied all that was good about his homeland –  its landscape, its people and its history.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

In 1898 Levitan was given the title of academic of landscape painting. He still taught in the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture. His paintings were constantly on display at Russia-wide exhibitions, at International exhibitions in Munich and the World Exhibition in Paris. He became internationally famous. His health started failing, his heart disease progressing quickly. He went abroad for some last-ditch medical treatment but any slight improvement was short lived.   Isaac Levitan completed over a thousand paintings, during his short life.  He died on 22 June 1900, just forty years of age. Levitan never married and had no children.   He was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Dorogomilovo, Moscow.   In April 1941 Levitan’s remains were moved to the Novodevichy Cemetery, close to the grave of his friend Anton Chekhov.

In August 2008 in the village of Eliseikovo, Petushinsky District near Vladimir – the Levitan House of Landscape was opened. Isaac Levitan first came to this area in May 1891, on invitation of the historian Vassily Kluchevsky, who had a summer home by the Peksha River. In 1892, Levitan returned, but on this occasion it was not from choice as it was the time when the Russian authorities banished Jews from Moscow.  The great Russain opera singer and friend of Levitan, Fyodor Shalyapin, spoke of the art of his friend:

“…It has brought me to realization that the most important thing in art is this feeling, this spirit, this prophetic word that sets people’s hearts on fire. And this prophetic word can be expressed not only in speech and gesture but also in line and colour…”

Advertisements

Isaac Levitan. Part 1, His early life and paintings

Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)
Self portrait by Isaac Levitan (1880)

From the portraiture and the religious works of the 16th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Moroni I am moving in a completely different direction.  I am focusing on the Russian Empire and one of, if not the greatest Russian landscape painter of the nineteenth century.  Today let me introduce you to Isaac Levitan.

Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)
Portrait of Isaac Levitan by Valentin Serov (1883)

Isaac Ilyich Levitan was born in August 1860 in the small schetl of Kibart.  A schetl is a small settlement with a large Jewish population.    Kibart was close to the border town of Verzhbolovo, and was then part of what was known as Russian Poland.  The town is now part of Lithuania and is known as Virbalis.  Levitan was one of four children who was born into an intellectual working class Jewish family.  His father, Elyashiv Levitan, was a language teacher, teaching French and German at the nearby school in Kowno (now Kaunus, Lithuania) He alaso supplemented his pay as a teacher by acting as a translator for a French building company, which was constructing a nearby bridge over the Lieponio River for the St. Petersburg to Warsaw railway.  Elyashiv spent a lot of his free time educating his children at home.  Both Isaac’s mother and father were interested in art and so, when their son and his brother Axel also showed an interest in it, they were only too pleased to nurture their children’s love of drawing and painting.

Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)
Landscape on the Volga by Isaac Levitan (1878)

In the Spring of 1870 the family moved to Moscow and the following year his older brother Axel enrolled at the Moscow College of Art, Sculpture and Architecture, which was one of the largest educational institutions in Russia.  Two years later, in September 1873, Isaac also registered as a pupil at the college to study art.  His initial artistic training concentrated on copying but, after a year, he moved on to a class which focused on nature and art and soon he was embroiled in the genre of landscape painting, which was later to make him famous.  He had first-class teachers at the college, including the landscape painters, Alexi Savrasov, the head of the landscape department, his successor, Vasily Polenov and the Realist painter Vasily Perov, who was the founder of the Peredvizhniki often known as The Wanderers or The Itinerants, who were a group of Russian realist painters who in protest at academic restrictions formed an artists’ cooperative.  The group later evolved into the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions.

Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)
Autumn Road in a Village by Isaac Levitan (1877)

Isaac loved the challenge of landscape painting and was greatly influenced by the landscape work of the Barbizon painters as well as the work of the French realist painter Camile Corot.  Things were proceeding well for Isaac until 1875 when, at the age of fifteen, tragedy struck with the death of his mother and in 1877, after contracting typhus and having endured a long illness during which time he could not earn money, his father died.  Now Isaac was without financial support.  He had neither money to pay the college fees nor the money to live.  He was asked to leave the college due to non-payment of his tuition fees but was rescued by the kindness of friends who gave him the money so that he could continue studying and later, thanks to the College Council who appreciated his talent, the tuition fees were waived and furthermore they awarded him a small bursary.

A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)
A Sunny Day, Spring by Isaac Levitan (1876)

In 1877, the year that his father died, the fifth Travelling Art Exhibition was held at the Moscow College of Art.  Isaac Levitan submitted two of his works with great hopes of a medal.  He had completed one of the works, Solnechnyi den Vesna (A Sunny Day, Spring) the previous year, whilst his other entry, Vecher (Evening) had been completed in 1877.  Levitan was disappointed in the judges’ decision.  He didn’t receive a medal for either work but was granted a diploma which allowed him to become an art teacher.

The year 1879 proved to be a year of turmoil and triumph for nineteen year old Levitan.  The turmoil occurred on the morning of April 20, 1879; Tsar Alexander II was attacked by a thirty-three year old former student, Alexander Soloviev, as he walked towards the Square of the Guards Staff.  The result of this assassination attempt was a crackdown on groups of people who were believed to be a threat to the Tsar.  The government issued an edict that there would be a mass deportation of Jews from the big cities of the Russian Empire.  This meant that Isaac’s family were forced to move out of the centre of Moscow to the eastern suburb of Saltykovka. Later that year, due to pressure on the local government officials by art lovers, Isaac Levitan was allowed to return to the city.

Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)
Autumn Day, Sokolniki, by Isaac Levitan (1879)

The triumph came that December, when Isaac entered his painting, Osenniy den Sokolniki (Autumn Day, Sokolniki) in the second students’ exhibition.  Levitan liked to paint views of different settings in the Moscow area. Considered to be one of the best works of this period is his poignant work entitled Autumn Day, Sokolniki, which he completed in 1879.   The painting reveals to us Levitan’s belief in the connection between nature and human feelings.  The painting is a depiction of a grey-clouded autumn sky and one can imagine the rustling sound of the wind through the trees causing the dying leaves to fall to the ground.  The path which disappears into the distance is the focal point of the painting.  It is empty with the exception of a woman dressed in black, who strolls towards us.

This work of art by Levitan was his reminder of his joy of walking along the forest path of his beloved Sokolniki Park.  The park lies to the northeast of the city and was so named because of its connection with falconry which took place there and was the favourite sport of members of the royal court (sokol is the Russian word for falcon).  This work of art received great revues and the following year it was purchased by the art collector and philanthropist, Pavel Tretyakov, the founder of the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.  This marked the initial public recognition of Isaac Levitan and his art.  The painting can now be seen at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It was around the end of the 1870’s that Isaac Levitan met the writer Anton Chekhov.  The meeting came about as Anton’s brother, Nikolai, was a fellow student of Levitan at the Moscow College of Art.  This was to be a friendship which lasted all Levitan’s life.

In my next blog I will continue looking at the life of Isaac Levitan and feature some of his most important later works.

Giovanni Battista Moroni – his religious works

In today’s blog I complete my look at the 16th century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and look at some of his religious works.

Moroni had studied under Alessandro Bonvicino (Il Moretto) and in the 1540’s he eventually rose to become the main studio assistant at his Master’s Brescia workshop.  Moroni went on to ply his trade in Bergamo, his home town of Albino and the town of Trent during which time, the town hosted the Catholic ecumenical Council of Trent.  The first Council being held between 1546 and 1548 and Pope Julius III instigated the Second Council of Trent, which began in May1551 and ended two years later.  During these days Moroni received many commissions to paint altarpieces for the local churches.

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)
The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

One such religious work was The Last Supper which Moroni completed in 1569.  The setting for the work is a covered logia, which is part of an architectural setting through which we glance out at a distant blue-skied landscape.  The first thing that strikes you about this rendition of the famous religious scene is the man in black who stands behind those partaking in the meal.  We can tell by his dress that he is not one of the Apostles.  He stands behind St John and is acting as a waiter to the diners.  He is the dominant character in the painting but why was he included?  We know the painting was commissioned in December 1565 by the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento, a regional Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament in the small Bergamo commune of Romano di Lombardia and was not completed until 1569.  There has been much speculation about the identity of the man in black with some people, such as the 19th century Italian art historian, Milesi Locatelli, who in his 1869 three-volume biography Illustri Bergamaschi. Studi critic-biografici,   and more recently Maria Calì in her 1980 book, “Verita” e “religione” nella pittura di Giovan Battista Moroni, both stated that it was the artist himself but why the confraternity would want Moroni to include himself is hard to rationalize.  Simone Facchinetti who co-wrote the book which accompanies the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition believes that the man in black is Lattanzio da Lallio, the parish priest of the Romano di Lombardia church at the time of the painting and his position of power over the confraternity and the fact that he was arranging the painting commission with Moroni, may have allowed/asked the artist to have himself depicted in the painting.

My next couple of religious works by Moroni are very interesting.  The depiction in each case is believed to have come from what was taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, often termed the Ignatian Spirituality.   The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditation, prayer, and contemplative practice developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God.  They were a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises.  When one prayed, St Ignatius believed that one should meditate on a biblical passage so as to bring the person praying closer to God.  He gave precise instructions on the matter of composition or envisioning the place.  The religious composition is the fruit of mental prayer.  It is a sort of vision arising in the mind of the one who is praying.  It is seeing with the eyes of the imagination a physical location in which the thing the worshipper wishes to contemplate is to be found.

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)
A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

The first painting is entitled A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian which was completed by Giovanni Battista Moroni around 1575.  The painting is housed in the Bergamo church, Chiesa di Sant’ Alessandro della Croce.  In this work a man in the foreground has turned towards us and points towards a painted scene of the Crucifixion which is being witnessed by St John the Baptist on the left and St Sebastian on the right.  The latter can be seen holding the arrows shot at him during the first attempt on his life.  Sebastian is often depicted in paintings tied to a tree or a pillar and shot with arrows but according to legend he did not die and was rescued by Irene of Rome, later Saint Irene.  Later, around AD 288, he was clubbed to death for openly criticising the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)
A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

The second work depicts a man praying and at the same time concentrating his mind on a story from the Bible, which in this case is the baptism of Christ by St John. What we see before us is what, through deep meditation, the praying man has conjured up in his mind during prayer. The painting is entitled Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ which Moroni completed around 1555.   The young man, with his hands clasped in prayer, stands upright before the biblical scene he is imagining, separated from it by some architectural ruins.  In the background we have a Lombardy landscape and in the middle ground we see the two figures by a stream which almost certainly alludes to the River Jordan where Christ was baptised by John.  The painting is now part of the Gerolamo and Roberta Etro collection.  Gerolamo, an avid art collector, was the founder in 1968 of Etro the Italian luxury fashion house.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

My final offering of a religious work by Moroni is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and was completed around 1550.  It is a beautiful and delicate work of art and is housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford.  In the painting we see a depiction of St Catherine, an early Christian martyr of royal birth, seated next to the Virgin Mary, who cradles the Christ Child.  Catherine is receiving a wedding-ring from Him, which symbolises her spiritual closeness to God.  In her left hand she holds a palm frond which was adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs, a victory for the faithful against those who want to claim their soul.  St Catherine, who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century AD, when she was in her twenties.  She was martyred at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius.

Torre civica, Bergamo
Torre civica, Bergamo

The setting for the painting is inside a room, which has a large window, through which can be seen a town.  It is thought that it is the town of Bergamo, as to the left, one sees the town’s Torre Civica, which was built in the twelfth century.  The small oil on canvas painting, which measures 86cms x 68cms, is thought to have been designed for private devotion.  Furthermore the original recipient of the work is thought to have been a young girl, who would then identify herself with the teenage martyr, Catherine.

Giovanni Moroni was part way through a commission to paint The Last Judgement in the church at Gorlago, a commune of Bergamo, close to his home town of Albino.   He never completed the commission as he died in February 1579.  Although his exact birth date is not known it is reckoned he was in his mid-fifties when he died.