(b. 1574, Roma, d. 1616, Roma)

St Carlo Borromeo

Oil on canvas, 217 x 151 cm
Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome

Borgianni's altarpiece for San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, the church of the Discalced Trinitarians, was probably already installed when the building was consecrated on 2 June 1612. At that time, the order's two founders, Felix de Valois and Jean de Matha, had not yet been canonised. They could only be worshiped in public after 1666, once the process had been completed. This did not mean, however, that a cult could not develop around them earlier. The order, established for the express purpose of buying the freedom of Christian slaves, was consecrated to the Holy Trinity. One of the most important 'new' saints of the period was Carlo Borromeo, who had been canonised in 1610. Borromeo came from Milan, which was then under Spanish rule. The Trinitarians, too, had close ties with Spain, and between 1598 and 1606 Borgianni himself had spent time in Pamplona, Madrid, Valladolid and Toledo. It is therefore not at all surprising that the commission for the recently finished church went to him, and that the church itself was not only dedicated to the Holy Trinity but to this new saint as well.

In the altarpiece Carlo Borromeo is seen in full length, his left hand at his breast and his other open, pointing downwards. The Holy Trinity is depicted at the upper left. This combination might seem surprising. Although Carlo Borromeo was particularly devoted to the Passion, in Borgianni's painting he is presented as a true devotee of the Trinity, which in this context is understandable. The saint clearly demonstrates that his devotion is affective and that it comes directly from a pious heart. He is an example for all the Trinitarian brothers living in the monastery to imitate. Moreover, the altarpiece signaled the political leanings of the order towards the Spanish-Lombard faction. Remarkably enough the Trinitarians did exactly the same as the Barnabites who in their San Carlo ai Catinari used the image of Carlo Borromeo to show their spiritual affiliations.

In 1614 the saint's heart was triumphantly brought to the church of Santi Carlo e Ambrogio al Corso. This intensified the cult around the great Milanese cardinal, which now centred on his mystically inspired, secular charity. The saint's gesture in Borgianni's altarpiece is a conscious reference to this new, modernised cult. The order's propagandistic aims and the desire for a public avowal of their particular brand of spirituality thus determine the look of Borgianni's painting.