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Work The Discovery of the Bodies of Saint Gervase and Saint Protase

Department of Prints and Drawings: 17th century

L'invention des corps de saint Gervais et de saint Protais

RMN-Grand Palais - Photo T. Le Mage

Prints and Drawings
17th century

Author(s):
Grollemund Hélène

This drawing is a study for the Discovery of the Bodies of Saint Gervase and Saint Protase by Saint Ambrose (Musée de Lyon), commissioned from Philippe de Champaigne by the churchwardens of the Parisian church of Saint Gervase in 1657. Completed in March 1660, it formed part of a series of six pictures which decorated the chancel of this church. Tapestry copies were made of these pictures (Musée Galliera, Paris) and exhibited on feast days.

From Le Sueur to Champaigne

The churchwardens of the church of Saint Gervase and Saint Prostase, who wished to adorn their church, decided in 1652 to commission six tapestries celebrating their patron saints. The subjects were chosen by the priest Charles-François Talon. Gérard Laurent, "conducteur des manufactures de tapysseries de haute lisse pour le roy," was chosen to design the tapestries, while Le Sueur was chosen to execute the commission. His death in 1655 precluded this and Thomas Gouffé, his brother-in-law, finished one of his cartoons. The churchwardens then enlisted Sébastien Bourdon to execute the four remaining tapestries. Doubtlessly because of his delay in delivering the first picture commissioned, which was only completed in 1657, and because he belonged to the reformed church, the wardens got rid of him and turned to Philippe de Champaigne. Although he was a parishioner of the church of Saint Gervase and Saint Prostase and a friend of the Talons, he had not been commissioned before, probably because his fees were considered too high. He had to accept the commission at the same rate as his predecessor, but the churchwardens granted him eight months instead of six to paint each cartoon and allowed him the freedom to change the subjects proposed.

Faithfulness to the text

Champaigne followed the text of The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine. After having the location of the burial site of the twin brothers revealed to him by Saint Paul, Saint Ambrose organized the exhumation of the two bodies. These are depicted laid side by side in a flat coffin being raised by a winch. In the foreground, a man on a ladder steadies the coffin underneath which two workers are sliding a log. On the right, Saint Ambrose is kneeling, his arms outstretched and his eyes raised towards heaven. He is surrounded by prelates and other figures, some of whom are carrying candles, a cross, and a crozier. The emotion generated by the event is highlighted by the figures of the two believers on the far left, horrified by the sight of the mutilated corpses. All the figures, as in the painting, are portrayed in a frieze arrangement, but the vibrancy of the heads and arms and the obvious curiosity of the protagonists, as well as the two figures placed at the left- and right-hand edges of the drawing in the guise of a foil, lend a dynamic quality to the composition, which is reinforced by the treatment of light.

Spontaneity and restraint

This preliminary drawing is basically a rough sketch, hastily drawn with a spontaneity and vivacity which gives us an invaluable insight into Champaigne's draftsmanship. It is, seen in this light, one of his best drawings and one of those in which he most successfully blended the various elements he had borrowed from very diverse sources: classical antiquity, Raphael, the Venetians and the Caravaggio school, the Bolognese painters, and Poussin. The comparison with the definitive work highlights the fact that in the transition from the sketch to the finished composition, Philippe de Champaigne, like all his French contemporaries, moved from verticality to horizontality, from movement to stillness, from contrast to the uniformity of light and shade, and from impetuousness to restraint.

Bibliography

Dessins français du XVIIe siècle : artistes contemporains de Poussin, exp. Paris, Musée du Louvre, 1960, n 31.
B. Dorival, Philippe de Champaigne, 1976.
B. Dorival, in Philippe de Champaigne, cat. exp. Paris, musée de l'Orangerie, 1952, n 55.
L. Pericolo, Philippe de Champaigne, 2002, p. 274-280.

Technical description

  • Philippe de Champaigne (Brussels, 1602-Paris, 1674)

    The Discovery of the Bodies of Saint Gervase and Saint Protase

    Between 1657 and 1660

  • Gray wash with some parts reworked in ink, with traces of red chalk.

    H. 15 cm; W. 27.2 cm

  • Pierre-Jean Mariette collection; sold in Paris, 1775, lot 1188. Purchased by the emperor for the Cabinet du Roi.

    3919858

  • Prints and Drawings

    Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.

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