(b. 1579, Venezia, d. 1620, Venezia)

Saint Cecilia and the Angel

c. 1610
Oil on canvas, 172 x 139 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

There is a long history of attributions of this painting to various artists. The attribution to Saraceni is accepted by the majority of art historians. However, the attribution to a non-Italian, Guy François, has been sustained by all the French critics, notwithstanding the absence of any confirmed Roman works by this artist.

If the painting is compared with certified works of Saraceni and with those of Guy François (all executed after his return to Le Puy) it seems evident that neither of the two painters can be convincingly considered the author of this masterpiece. It is true nevertheless that one can identify in the execution of the painting some of the signature details shared by both artists, and some details peculiar to the style of one or the other. The most distinctive element of the picture, however, is the extraordinarily inventive composition, dominated by the enormous wings of the angel and by the diagonal of the bass viol. This instrument, along with the large lyre in the foreground, stretches across the entire surface of the canvas, as if to measure the space within. The courageous and original composition has no convincing analogues in the work of François, which is always rather more conventional. On the other hand, this composition seems to fit well alongside proven works by Saraceni, beginning with the Flight into Egypt at the Eremo dei Camaldoli (1606).

The depiction of the subject is related to the vigorous revival of the cult of Saint Cecilia in the first few decades of the seventeenth century, following the 1599 discovery of the virgin martyr's incorrupt body during the course of excavations at the Roman church of Santa Cecilia.

In this painting the patron saint of musicians and musical instrument makers is a beautiful young woman, who appears surrounded by instruments in this interior created by green and red draperies. She is tuning her lute with a delicate movement, according to the instructions of an angel next to her. Her devoted attention indicates that her skill in the handling of instruments is derived from God. The painter depicted the spiritual meeting of the angel and Cecilia through a poetic mood and the inner brilliance of the soft profiles.

The elegance of forms and gestures is coupled with gentle and natural realism. The dominant element, as it fills nearly one-third of the composition, is the six-stringed viola da gamba, which the angel holds in his right hand. The viewer is overwhelmed by the near-concrete realism of its shell, material and outline. Next to it on the ground lie two wind instruments; in the centre under the opened sheet music, a violin. The painter even included a small harp in the right background. On the other hand, the organ is missing; thus there is nothing to refer to the text of the St Cecilia legend.

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