Painting on Stone at the Saint Louis Art Museum

Wilhelm van Ehrenberg, Flemish, 1630–1676; “Interior of the Jesuit Church in Antwerp”, 1668; oil on marble; 39 x 41 inches; Rubens House Museum, Antwerp, Belgium

I hope readers can make it out to a fascinating new exhibit at the Saint Louis Art Museum curated by Judy Mann, curator of European Art to 1800 and Research Assistant Andrea Miller, entitled Painting on Stone: Science and the Sacred, 1530-1800. While we usually think of painting as an art form created on canvas or panel, in reality other material such as copper and stone was used far more often than many people realize. The subject of this exhibit, which borrows works from around the United States and Europe, focuses on the latter.

I find this exhibit interesting as stone is a material usually thought of in the context of architecture, and the first painting, of the Jesuit church of St. Charles Borromeo in Antwerp, makes a unique use of the the marble contours of the support, while creating the image with oil paint. From a certain point of view, it blends architecture and the art of painting together.

As longtime readers know, I often like to make connections back to cities in Europe and their influence on St. Louis and the United States, and one of the more important churches in the center of Rome is Santa Maria in Vallicella, or as it’s more commonly known, the Chiesa Nuova.

Peter Paul Rubens, who would call Antwerp home, was then a young artist in Rome in the early Seventeenth Century when he secured the commission of the high altar of the church, which was quite the coup since there were many other up and coming Italian artists as competition at the time. Rubens’s first altarpiece was actually rejected by the Oratorians, the custodians of the Chiesa Nuova, because there was too much of a glare from the front door of the church. Consequently, Rubens painted a second version on a giant piece of slate, which is a stone that splits evenly in flat pieces. Ironically, there is still a little bit of a glare on the painting when you walk in the front door of the church.

Here’s another example of a painting that makes use of the natural grain of the stone, in this case alabaster, to give the effect of real sculpture.

possibly follower of Hendrick Van Balen I, Flemish, 1575–1632; “Bathsheba”, 1650; oil on alabaster laid down on slate; 18 3/4 x 29 1/8 inches; Private Collection, Belgium; Photo by Cedric Verhelst

I was also intrigued by this portrait of a member of the Medici family, the illustrious clan that ruled Florence as first de facto and then as dukes and grand dukes. There is incredible symbolism in the painting being rendered on porphyry, which is a stone that had been brought to the Italian peninsula in during the Roman Empire from Egypt.

Girolamo Macchietti, Italian, 1535 – 1592; “Portrait of Young Ferdinando de’Medici”, 1570s; oil on porphyry; unframed: 7 7/8 x 6 11/16 x 3/8 inches; Private Collection

Besides its obvious association with Roman Imperial authority, there was the understanding that the hard, purple igneous stone was rare and imbued with a certain prestige as it was spolia from the ancient world. While Florence had only been a relatively small city during the Roman Empire, there were still two large porphyry columns placed on either side of the eastern door of the Baptistry of Florence’s cathedral, and there were various spurious stories about the building actually being an ancient Roman temple. You can see the two ancient Roman porphyry columns just on the left and right of the reproduction of Ghiberti’s Doors of Paradise below.

Wknight84, Baptistry of St. John, Florence, Italy, April 22, 2008.

Of course, the real prizes of ancient Roman porphyry were in Rome, which were the sarcophagi of the Roman emperors, and in this case below, St. Costanza. It is a very difficult hunk of stone to photograph! And considering how important of an artifact it is I’m always surprised how most people walk by it in the Vatican Museums without even noticing it–despite being absolutely gigantic.

The Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum also makes use of porphyry around two of the roundels taken from earlier triumphal arches. Even in the ancient world, artists and their patrons understood the power imbued in stone and how it could be manipulated in compositions to add prestige. The Medici, a millennium later understood it, as well.

A couple of other works that I believe are standouts in the exhibit are the ones below, including this spectacular composition below where the artist uses the contours of the alabaster to simulate the cascading waters of the Red Sea crashing down around the soldiers of the Pharaoh’s army.

Johann König, German, 1568-1642; “Isrealites Crossing the Red Sea (recto)”, 1625-31; oil on alabaster; 20 3/4 x 21 1/4 x 1 inches; Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Sweden

Another work by the Cavaliere d’Arpino, which is in the collections of the Art Museum, actually inspired the exhibit. Using lapis lazuli, which comes from Afghanistan, the Cavaliere used the grain of the lapis to create a stunning blue sky, and even modified the composition to consider the natural crack, just keeping Andromeda’s toes above it.

Cavaliere D’Arpino (Giuseppe Cesari), Italian, 1568-1640; “Perseus Rescuing Andromeda”, c.1593-94; oil on lapis lazuli; 7 15/16 x 6 1/8 x 1/4 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 1:2000

Other works, such as the one below, seem to use the stone to create a vibrant background to a portrait.

Francesco Salviati (Francesco de’Rossi), Italian, 1510–1563; “Portrait of Roberto di Filippo di Filippo Strozzi”, possibly 1550s; oil on red and black African marble; tondo: 5 1/8 inches; Private Collection, Paris

A follower of Caravaggio, Alessandro Turchi, made use of the dark slate to create the shadowy background of the composition below.

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Alessandro Turchi, Saint Agatha Attended by Saint Peter and an Angel in Prison, ca. 1640-1645, oil on slate, Painted surface H: 13 11/16 x W: 19 1/2 x Approx. D: 5/16 in. (34.7 x 49.5 x 0.8 cm), Acquired by Henry Walters, before 1909 (The Walters Art Museum, 37.552)

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