View objects: St. Jerome in the Wilderness and St. Agatha Visited in Prison by St. Peter
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Welcome to the exhibition Veronese in Murano: Two Venetian Masterpieces Restored. I am Xavier Salomon. I am the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator here at the Frick Collection and I curated this exhibition.
The exhibition Veronese in Murano: Two Venetian Masterpieces Restored brings together for the first time to America two great works by the Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese, which come from the island of Murano. Murano is half a mile northeast of Venice itself in the Venetian Lagoon and it is an island that is today well-known for the glass industry that developed there since at least the 10th century and, to this day, Murano is still a great center of glass production in the western world, but Murano was also an island where great churches were built and palaces and there was a very interesting sort of artistic flourishing in the 16th and 17th century.
Veronese painted these two canvases for a small chapel and so the idea of this room here, the Oval Room at the Frick, is to recreate that feeling of the chapel with just the two paintings. Imagine a small brick structure in a cemetery on the island of Murano and that's where these paintings were created for.
A priest called Francesco degli Arbori in 1566 decided to donate the chapel that he was in the process of building to the nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Santa Maria degli Angeli was one of the most important nunneries in the Venetian Lagoon at the time and the cemetery was to the right of the main church. The nuns had given a plot of land to Francesco degli Arbori and we know very little about this priest and how he commissioned and why he commissioned these works from Veronese. Degli Arbori was the chaplain of the nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli and he decided to build this chapel and to dedicate it to St. Jerome. Between 1566 and 1568 the chapel was built and we know it was dedicated in 1568.
The two paintings were the main decoration of the chapel. So you have to imagine that you would have entered a space, in front of you, you would have found the high altar, the St. Jerome above the altar, and just behind you, over the door, up high, would have been the other horizontal canvas, the St. Agatha Visited in Prison by St. Peter. We've tried to echo the hang, here in the Oval Room, with hanging the pictures one across from the other, even though we couldn't really put the St. Agatha over the door, but hopefully, you can imagine how that would have worked in the original space.
Francesco degli Arbori died in the 1570s and left the chapel to the nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli with an endowment for masses to be said on the feast days of both St. Jerome and St. Agatha.
The two paintings, like in the original chapel, face each other here at the Frick. The St. Jerome is in front of you, over the altar, and the picture that Veronese painted, again, between 1566 to 1568, was done for the altar and for Francesco degli Arbori to represent, to depict the main saint to whom the chapel was dedicated. Jerome was a medieval saint. His life is told in the Golden Legend, a medieval text that tells us that he was a monk who translated the Bible into Latin. Still, to this day, the Latin version of the Bible is St. Jerome's, a so-called Vulgata. Jerome also spent a period of time in the Syrian desert where he fasted and prayed in the wilderness.
The image of St. Jerome was a particularly popular one in Renaissance Venice and Italy. Here you see Jerome in the wilderness beating his chest with a rock. He's looking up to a crucifix and on his right are two books, a skull, and an hourglass: the symbols of the vanity of life and his future death. The books, of course, refer to his translation of the Bible. Next to him is also a lion, which was the customary symbol of St. Jerome. It was his attribute. The legend tells us that later on when he was in Bethlehem, a lion limped into the monastery in which Jerome was, roaring, and all the monks fled in terror, but Jerome was the only one who realized the lion was hurt and had a thorn in its paw. He removed the thorn and the lion remained his faithful companion for the rest of its life. So, Jerome is often represented, also, in the desert accompanied by the lion.
The landscape is an extraordinary landscape. It's unclear if it's dusk or dawn, but it's a sort of beautiful effect of light coming through the picture.
If you turn to your left and look through the archway of the Oval Room, you can see down at the end of the West Gallery the two Veroneses that are usually at The Frick Collection, that belong to the collection, Wisdom and Strengthand The Choice Between Vice and Virtue. These were painted exactly at the same time in the 1560s and it is even possible that the paintings, the Jerome and the Frick canvases, were in Veronese's workshop at the same time. It is really beautiful to be able to see the two paintings at the end of the West Gallery and the St. Jerome together through the archway. It is a very interesting juxtaposition between two secular works by Veronese, two allegories, and this wonderful religious altarpiece.
If you turn 'round, you can then see the St. Agatha Visited in Prison by St. Peter. While St. Jerome was a very popular subject in Italy, St. Agatha was a much rarer one and did not appear in many images at this time. Agatha was a martyr from Sicily and she was based historically and her cult is still based to this day in Catania in Sicily. So why this saint was represented in Francesco degli Arbori's chapel, we're not entirely sure.
The scene particularly is also a strange one. It's, again, recounted in the Golden Legend and what you see here is the moment when Agatha, after undergoing the horrific ordeal of having her breasts cut off during the Roman persecutions, Agatha was thrown in prison. During the night, St. Peter appeared to her with an angel and she was healed. Subsequently, she underwent other horrific forms of martyrdom before dying in prison.
You have to imagine this picture up high. The whole composition is designed to be seen from below. You can imagine that being up on a wall the figures would sort of project down into our space. The whole composition centers on the three figures, Agatha on the left. She is sitting on a stool, covering her wounded breasts with a piece of fabric while Peter appears on the right entering into the door of the cell, holding the keys to Heaven, and pointing with his finger to the sky suggesting not only Agatha's healing but also her sort of upcoming death and sort of moving into eternal life subsequently. The angel in the middle is this extraordinary figure that pivots and turns holding this wonderful torch and really is a sort of beautiful sculptural figure within the painting.
The whole room is an incredible example of still life. There is Agatha's bed and mattress in the back with a chamber pot sitting underneath the bed. To the left there is a crucifix and a print and a rosary attached to the wall, and above on a shelf, an extraordinary still life of wine in a glass, carafe, and bread. Now, this departs in some ways from the depiction of the Golden Legend, the description of the event, in which it is clearly stated that Agatha was thrown into prison with no food or drink, so the presence of bread and wine, in this case, is a symbolic one. It's clearly referring to the Eucharistic symbols of bread and wine and would have been particularly appropriate if you imagine that a priest would have been saying Mass over the altar and then turning around, looking at this picture above the door and seeing the bread and wine there. Of course, they're also positioned exactly above the figure of Agatha.
The other difference from the Golden Legend is the time of day. Of course, the Golden Legend describes the scene as happening at night. Here, we are in a dark cell, but the window opens to a sunny sky outside. I think that is done by Veronese to give an effect of the space beyond that grill, beyond that window, and when you imagine that this picture was on the counter façade of the chapel, above the door, of course that window would have looked like a real window into the outer space in the cemetery in Murano.
The two paintings remained in the chapel for only about a hundred years. In 1667, the nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli, worried about the condition of the paintings and this little isolated chapel and also worried, probably, about thefts, decided to remove the two paintings into the main church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and there they remained for most of the 18th century.
The two extraordinary frames that you see here, these incredible scrolls and the wonderful carved woodwork that's gilded to create these really remarkable objects, were done probably at the very end of the 17th century or maybe even in the early 18th century for the paintings once they entered the church.
The pictures moved a third time at the beginning of the 19th century. After the Napoleonic invasion of Venice and the end of the Venetian Republic, it was decided that many churches, monasteries, and convents would be suppressed, and so Santa Maria degli Angeli was one of the institutions on this list. The convent was eventually demolished, so was the little chapel of Francesco degli Arbori. The church was bound to be demolished, but eventually was kept and still survives to this day, but in view of destroying the church, the two paintings were moved to another church in Murano, to the parish of San Pietro Martire where they've remained for the last 200 years in the nave of the church.
The paintings are here, newly restored. They were cleaned in Venice under the auspices of Venetian Heritage and through the sponsorship of Bulgari. Both the paintings, the canvases, and the frames were newly cleaned and this is their debut in America. The St. Agatha has never left Murano before. The St. Jerome only left once in 1939 to be shown in a monographic exhibition on Veronese in Venice at Ca'Giustinian. So it is extraordinary for us and a wonderful opportunity to be able to display these two great religious works by Veronese from the 1560s, together, here at The Frick Collection.