(b. ca. 1590, Oldenburg, d. 1631, Verona)
The Ecstasy of St Paul1628-29
Oil on canvas, 80 x 58 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
In his second Epistle to the Corinthians, St Paul describes the revelations that were made to him. Liss portrays one of the apostle's visions, `how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter'. Above the seated apostle, who is surrounded by books, an angel draws aside a curtain; terrified, Paul shrinks back from the expanse of heaven revealed to him. Angels playing musical instruments gambol in the clouds, and in the distance the Trinity appears. The colours range from the deep violet of Paul's cloak through the green of the curtain to the most delicate yellow, blue and pink of the clouds. This painting with its extraordinary wealth of brilliant colour is one of the artist's finest works and seems to anticipate the Venetian painting of the eighteenth century.
With the exception of Adam Elsheimer, Johann Liss was the most outstanding German painter of the seventeenth century. He was born in Schleswig-Holstein c. 1597, spent several years studying in the Netherlands, where he came into contact with the Haarlem painters, principally Goltzius and Buytewech, and with the Flemish followers of Caravaggio in Antwerp (Janssens, Jordaens). Liss then made his way to Italy via Paris. To begin with, he worked in Rome, where he was a member of the Netherlandish artists' colony, and exactly when he settled in Venice is not known. Until his early death, supposedly a victim of the plague which broke out in 1629, he continued to work in Venice and it was in these last years that he produced his best-known works, among them The Ecstasy of St Paul. Together with Domenico Feti, Liss played an important part in reviving the use of rich colours, a Venetian tradition which had ended with Tintoretto.
In the seventeenth century this painting was in the famous collection of the Amsterdam merchant Gerrit Reynst (died 1658), which consisted mainly of works by Venetian masters and included a companion-piece, The Vision of St Peter, which was subsequently lost. Both pictures were engraved by Jeremias Falck and attributed to Johann Liss, but it seems certain that the St Peter picture was not the work of Liss but of Domenico Feti, who was a close friend of the German painter. It may be that after Feti's death (1623), his patron decided to commission Johann Liss to paint the companion-picture to the St Peter. The Ecstasy of St Paul came up for sale in Amsterdam in 1722 with the Van de Amory Collection and found its way through a Florentine art-dealer into the Berlin collection of A. von Frey, from which it passed in 1919 to the Picture Gallery.