This painting by Sofonisba Anguissola was recently discovered, making it an extraordinary new addition to her small known body of religious works. Signed and dated by Anguissola herself, it is in an outstanding state of conservation and only required a slight intervention to participate in the exhibition A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana, curated by Leticia Ruiz and held at the Museo del Prado in 2019, the first time the painting was seen in public.
The work shows the episode of the mystic marriage between Christ and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, as reported by Jacobus de Voragine in his The Golden Legend. Saint Catherine, a princess living in the fourth century who was martyred for her Catholic faith, welcomed the wedding ring from the Christ Child in the presence of the Virgin Mary and an older woman who may be Saint Anne. Despite being a popular theme, the existence of this cultivated, refined princess, represented by the spiked wheel on which she was tortured and the martyr's palm frond, it is considered fairly dubious.
The date of the work, 1588, indicates that it was painted in Genoa, the city where Sofonisba Anguissola lived between 1580 and 1615, when she enjoyed a wealthy lifestyle that enabled her to devote herself fully to painting. This leads us to believe that this was where she directly encountered the work by the same name by Luca Cambiasoone of the top representatives of the Genoese schoolwhich she faithfully reproduced on the canvas that now joins the collection of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. The artist may have been interested in this new iconography, which shows a Christ Child grown and very strongly resembling his mother, which humanises his figure and gives him a more important role in the scene.
Even though it faithfully follows Cambiaso's original, Anguissola's work has a few nuances that make it unique. The saint's clothing is richer here, with glimmers in the cloth and silk sleeves that are not found in Cambiaso's work. Anguissola also makes the crown more detailed and luxurious, and adds pearls to the headdress and the sleeve of the cloak.
Another of Anguissola's contributions is the composition of the floor, with a step on the lower edge that frames the scene, from which small bunches of flowers are blossoming. Anguissola does not depict plants in great detail in her paintings, but in this one she distinguishes different specimens of violet (Viola odorata), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), daisies (Bellis perennis 'Plena') and bare root rose (Rosa gallica 'Officinalis') next to the ashlar where the Virgin is seated, a possible reference to the Passion of Christ. The landscape on the upper right-hand corner and the curtain protecting the figures help frame the scene.
The delicate colouring, soft modelling and elegant intimacy among the figures, whose proportions are slightly elongated, bring a mildness and serenity that distinguish the composition. As Leticia Ruiz states: ' la dolcezza sfumata of Correggio can be perceived in the handful of religious works by Sofonisba from this period', a quality that characterises this beautiful recent acquisition, which happily extends the timeline of the women artists in the collection of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, c.1535Palermo, 1625) came from a noble family in Cremona. Between 1546 and 1549, she trained with the painters Bernardino Campi and Bernardino Gatti. Invited to the Madrid Court in 1559 by Philip II, she served as a lady-in-waiting for Elisabeth of Valois, princess Isabel Clara Eugenia and Philip II's new wife, Anne of Austria, and she painted several portraits of the royal family and its courtiers. Some of them, conserved today at the Museo del Prado, were attributed to the painters Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and Alonso Sánchez Coello and were not ascribed to Anguissola until 1972, when the earliest research into this Italian painter finally brought her to light. Despite this omission, Anguissola was appreciated by other great artists of her day, including Michelangelo and Van Dyck, and she achieved prestige comparable to that of other women artists like Lavinia Fontana and Artemisia Gentileschi.
Sofonisba Anguissola (Cremona, Italy, c. 1535 –Palermo, Italy, 1625)
The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, 1588
Oil on canvas. 94 x 70 cm
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum