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Work Saint Cecilia with an angel holding a musical score

Department of Paintings: Italian painting

Saint Cecilia with an Angle Holding a Musical Score

© 2010 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Italian painting

Bastien Speranza

This painting of Saint Cecilia was probably commissioned by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi. The painting was brought to France in about 1650-1660. The composition is inspired by Raphael's Saint Cecilia, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna.

Divine music

Saint Cecilia is holding a bass viol with seven strings. The neck of the instrument is carved with the winged head of an angel. Beside the saint is an angel holding the score of a cantata to the glory of Saint Cecilia with a bass viol accompaniment. The saint is singing and playing her instrument, but she is not following the score. Her eyes are raised heavenwards in divine inspiration.
The body of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was discovered in a miraculous state of conservation in Rome in 1599. Domenichino may have painted this work some time around 1617, shortly after his return to Bologna. He saw Raphael's Saint Cecilia (1514) in Bologna and doubtless learned the principles of Roman classicism from Raphael's example.

Mannerist beauty

The work is characterized by the remarkable stability of its composition.The three figures of the saint, the instrument, and the angel represent three imposing vertical forms. The curving lines of the instrument mirror Saint Cecilia's loose gown and the rather chubby angel. The three shapes form a diagonal line, creating a "decrescendo" from the background to the foreground. The vertical lines of these three forms are balanced by the horizontal lines of the bow and the marble base that the instrument is resting on, which may be a balustrade or a pedestal. The scene is lit from the left with a diffuse golden light which warms the scarlet fabric of the saint's gown. The perfect oval of the saint's face, the detailed rendition of her hairstyle and gown, and the delicacy of her hands make her a vision of the Mannerist ideal of feminine beauty.

A scene for private devotion

Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholicism laid ever greater emphasis on the worship of the saints, following the Tridentine reform and as a riposte against protestantism. The saints were seen as intercessors between ordinary worshippers and God, and they came to represent a more personal and individual form of religious devotion. Despite the large size of this painting, it is a perfect example of a work designed to bring about a sense of intimacy in the viewer. By placing the viol rather than the saint on the pedestal base, for example, the artist underlines the role of music as an intermediary between worshippers and the realm of God. The open score is there to allow the viewer to join the saint in her heavenly singing. Domenichino aimed to revive the echoes of antique music through painting. In this work, he has created a fusion of the two arts to depict the mystic union between the saint, the Catholic viewer, and God.

Technical description

  • Domenico ZAMPIERI, known as DOMENICHINO (Bologna, 1581 - Naples, 1641)

    Saint Cecilia with an Angle Holding a Musical Score

    c. 1617-18

  • H. 1.60 m; W. 1.20 m

  • Collection of Louis XIV (acquired in 1662)

    INV. 793

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Grande Galerie
    Room 710, 712, 716

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