TIEPOLO, Giovanni Battista
(b. 1696, Venezia, d. 1770, Madrid)

The Martyrdom of St Agatha

c. 1756
Oil on canvas, 184 x 131 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

This picture was painted c. 1756 for the high altar of the church of S. Agata in Lendinara. It must originally have been rounded at the top, for it appears in this form in an etching by Tiepolo's son, Giovanni Domenico. The part which is now missing showed a heart surrounded by the crown of thorns in a nimbus, at which the saint was gazing. The beautiful Agatha was a devout Christian who lived in Catania. She steadfastly refused to make sacrifice to the heathen gods. When she defied the threats of the Roman Governor of Sicily, Quintianus, he ordered her breasts to be cut off. We see her, half-naked, on a flight of steps; a maid kneels behind her, supporting her and holding her dress against the bleeding wounds. A page stands in front of a marble pillar, holding the severed breasts of the martyr on a silver platter and gazing down at her. The uncouth figure of the executioner, clad in red and holding a blood-stained sword, towers menacingly over the group.

Tiepolo is among the last of the great Venetian painters, a master of large-scale composition, who was commissioned by princes outside (Würzburg, Madrid) as well as inside Italy. Nor did he shrink from this particularly horrifying subject; once before, twenty years earlier, he had been required to treat the same subject for the church of S. Antonio in Padua. With astonishing self-assurance the painter succeeds in portraying this fearful episode in artistic terms without allowing it to degenerate into mere bloodshed and horror. At the same time, so strong is his desire for realism - and he had doubtless witnessed executions himself - that he exploits to the utmost the artistic possibilities open to him.

In colour and form the composition is extremely accomplished, almost too much so to do justice to the theme. Between the soaring pillar and the towering figure of the executioner, one glimpses the dark entrance of the dungeon and beneath it the pale face of the martyr, flanked on both sides - almost oppressively close - by the faces of the two witnesses. The compassion expressed in the attitude of the young woman on the right contrasts with the searching glance of the page on the left, in which merely the physical effect of the scene before him is reflected. The wide, pale-blue cloak of the saint serves to bind the group of three figures together and blends with the silver-white, the bright yellow and the orange to produce a colour-harmony that is characteristic of Tiepolo. Two of the artist's crayon studies for the saint's face are in the Kupferstichkabinett (Copper Engravings section) in the Berlin Museum.

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