(b. ca. 1553, Pomarance, d. 1626, Roma)

St Domitilla with Sts Nereus and Achilleus

c. 1598-99
Oil on canvas, 275 x 170 cm
Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo, Rome

Certainly not a breathtaking work, Pomarancio's painting is nevertheless an important historical document. It was painted around 1598-99 for an altar in the left transept of Santi Nereo e Achilleo in Rome. When he was appointed a cardinal in 1596, Cesare Baronio - who was intimately associated with the Congregation of the Oratory - chose this then rather dilapidated structure as his titular church. His reasons for doing so were twofold: firstly, its apparent simplicity fitted well with his publicly avowed modesty; and secondly, it was closely tied to the early, `heroic' phase of Christianity. Baronio also believed that St Gregory the Great, to whom the Oratory's initial church was also dedicated, had preached there. In 1599, in celebration of the reconstruction, which he had financed himself, Baronio had the relics of SS. Domitilla, Nereus and Achilleus returned from Sant'Adriano ai Fori (destroyed 1935), where they had been transferred in 1228 under Pope Gregory IX. All three martyrs are depicted in the painting.

The central figure of St Domitilla is based on Raphael's St Cecilia (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). Domitilla looks towards heaven as three angels swoop down holding wreaths. There is, however, a marked difference to Raphael's saint: Domitilla has been set in motion. Her left foot rests one step lower than her right, as if she were descending a staircase and approaching the spectator. This suggestion of movement is underlined by the fall of her drapery. She holds a palm frond in her right hand and is flanked by the two other saints, who are placed at a higher level and look directly at the viewer. Although Pomarancio's work conforms to all the conventions of the time, he has succeeded in enlivening it to such an extent that there seems to be real interaction between the saints and their audience. He thereby employs an artistic mode used to an even greater extent by the artists who followed him, including Caravaggio, Cavarozzi and Lanfranco.