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Work Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
Department of Prints and Drawings: 18th century
Présentation de la Vierge au Temple
Prints and Drawings
The painting of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple disappeared during the Second World War when the Royal Chapel of the palace at Caserta, near Naples, was bombed. This preparatory drawing is the only remaining autograph trace of it. The work was so admired at the Neapolitan court that Mengs, who was already acclaimed as the 'new Raphael', was sent to Madrid, the principal seat of Ferdinand IV's kingdom. From that point on his career took on a truly international dimension.
A unique testimony
Thanks to the interest shown by Queen Marie-Amélie, the wife of Ferdinand IV, king of Naples, and a fellow German, Mengs joined the team of artists appointed to decorate the Royal Chapel at Caserta. The palace architect, Gaspare Vanvitelli, would have preferred Neapolitan artists and was initially severely critical of the painting. He later revised his opinion.
The painting of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, of which this drawing is now the only surviving evidence, was finished between 1757 (when the artist sent a letter requesting payment of "six hundred sequins, and no less") and 1759, when Mengs delivered it personally in Naples.
A squared drawing
The study was intended to be transferred to a painting because it has been squared. The curve drawn on the lower edge suggests that the picture was intended to go over a doorway. Various documents testify that the Presentation was hung in the choir of the chapel dedicated to the Virgin, facing the Birth of the Virgin by the Neapolitan painter Sebastiano Conca.
Mary is shown in the centre of the scene, kneeling before the priests. Two figures stand to the left, St Anne and St Joachim, while two women sitting on the steps on the right, one holding a child in her arms, turn to watch them. The episode is taken from the Apocrypha of the New Testament, but Mengs has added figures taken from models that had been developed in Italy since the sixteenth century: indeed, it was not until after the Counter-Reformation that Mary's parents started to appear in this scene. The women sitting on the steps are not mentioned in the original text, by contrast; they are there to balance the composition.
The "new Raphael"
Winckelmann, theorist of neoclassicism and friend of Mengs, viewed Mengs as a worthy successor to Raphael. Certain aspects of this drawing do indeed show the influence of the old masters. The composition is not treated with Baroque pomp, and the figures are less theatrical, as though merely telling part of a continuing story. This "new Raphael" makes no secret of his admiration for the Renaissance genius: St Joachim is similar to a figure in Raphael's Dispute of the Holy Sacrament, in the Stanza della Segnature (Signature Room) in the Vatican. The balance and iconographic sources of the drawing also indicate his knowledge of seventeenth-century artists such as Domenichino and Giordano.
BibliographyMichel Régis, Le Beau idéal ou l'art du concept, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1989, pp.139-40, 159.
Roettgen Steffi, Anton Raphael Mengs, 1728-1779: Band 1: das malerische und zeichnerische Werk, Munich, 1999, p. 30, n. 4 vz 2.
Mengs: la scoperta del Neoclassico, Padoue, Palazzo Zabarella, Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, 2001, p. 153, repr. p. 152.
Anton Raphaël MENGS (Aussig, 1728 - Rome, 1779)
Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
Black chalk, white pencil highlights, on blue tinted paper, squared
H. 51.2 cm; W. 38.7 cm
Purchased before 1812
Due to their fragility, works on paper are not on permanent display in the museum.
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