(b. 1563, Pisa, d. 1639, London)

Sts Cecilia, Valerianus and Tiburtius

c. 1620
Oil on canvas, 350 x 218 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

The painting depicts the appearance of an angel to Valerianus and Cecilia, a young couple who had been converted to Christianity. Cecilia had taken a vow of chastity and had persuaded her husband to do likewise. Valerianus had suspected her of secretly being in love with his f riend Tiburtius but the angelic apparition allays his doubts while also heralding their approaching martyrdom.

The composition - showing the three sumptuously dressed saints as they express with dignity their astonishment over the apparition of the angel - incorporates the main elements of Gentileschi's art. It represents a high point of his maturity, ranking with the Madonna of the Rosei family and the Annunciation in Turin. The disciplined, orderly construction has a Neoclassical stamp that derives from the artist's Tuscan background. The handling of the light shows the fundamental influence of Caravaggio, while the refinement of the surfaces in the gleaming satin and damask draperies and the soft warmth of the velvets are inspired by Bronzino.

Typical of Gentileschi are the arrested gestures standing out against the opaque shadow of the austere interior; the figure of Tibertius, silhouetted against the light as he cautiously peers at the angel; the system of curves formed by the wings, the body and the long palm branch of the angel in flight; and the outstretched arms of St. Cecilia and St. Valerianus. The structural elements of the composition are striking: the link between Tibertius' hand and the angel's foot; the alignment of the palm branch and the organ pipes, and the wreath of flowers, St. Cecilia's hand and St. Valerianus' knee; and the parallels formed by the figures of St. Valerianus and St. Cecilia, the organ pipes and the door frame, the keyboard and the dais. Every element is brought into complex play in this highly articulated composition, from the tips of the wings and the palm branch to the edge of the red mantle, St. Valerianus' foot and the velvet cushion.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
Girolamo Frescobaldi: Ricercar No. 8