ALGARDI, Alessandro
(b. 1598, Bologna, d. 1654, Roma)

Beheading of St Paul

c. 1650
Marble, height 286 cm
San Paolo Maggiore, Bologna

Virgilio Spada, a career ecclesiastic whose family had established itself in Bologna engineered one of Algardi's greatest triumphs of the 1630s, the dramatic altarpiece of the Beheading of St Paul for the Bolognese church of San Paolo Maggiore. Unusual in Rome, such sculptural altars were not unknown in Venice and in the region around Bologna.

Algardi created a masterpiece without equal in Baroque sculpture. Often compared to painted altarpieces, Algardi's tableau exploits the traditional strength of sculpture by achieving a fully rounded, spatially complex group which plays upon the contrasting types and emotions of the figures. Having established action frozen in time, the sculptor sets a spiral pattern in motion, from the poised right arm of the executioner through the shoulders and arms of the kneeling saint and back to his assailant's right leg and drapery. The centre of the composition is a void, and tension builds up because of the imminent execution and the inevitability of martyrdom.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.