Thursday, January 21, 2021

Domenichino’s Martyrdom of St Agnes

In the year 1619, the painter Domenico Zampieri, who is generally referred to by the nickname “Domenichino – little Dominic”, was commissioned to do a monumental altarpiece for the Dominican convent of his native city of Bologna, which was dedicated to Saint Agnes, whose feast is kept today. The result was his Martyrdom of St Agnes, completed over a period of two years, which stands at 17½ feet tall by 11¼ wide. The convent was one of the Order’s oldest, established in the lifetime of St Dominic himself barely half a mile from the church where he is buried; it was suppressed during the Napoleonic sack of Italy, and the painting is now in the National Gallery in Bologna.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church was very much concerned with the position of women, particularly in response to the Protestant reformation, which abolished all forms of canonical and monastic life, leaving no institutional role for women. It also completely erased the Church’s traditional esteem for virginity as a state in life (whether formally blessed by the Church itself or not), despite its purported emphasis on St Paul, upon whose words in 1 Corinthians 7, 25-40 that esteem is based. Part of the Catholic answer to this, therefore, was to stress the importance of certain very ancient martyrs like Agnes, who died at least in part because of their refusal to marry, and were praised and held up as models by the same Church Fathers to whose writings the Protestants often looked for justification of their teachings.
In Domenichino’s time, Bologna was the second city of the Pontifical State, which had conquered it in 1506; on the ecclesiastical level, it had been a diocese directly dependent on the Holy See well before that. Just a year after the artist was born there in 1581, it was elevated to an archbishopric; the first archbishop, Gabriele Palleotti, was also the author of a treatise on painting, and especially religious painting, which was highly influential on the art of the Counter-Reformation. This treatise strongly highlighted the ability of art to preach and teach the Faith, and the idea that it preaches most effectively when it is not just beautiful, but also dignified, and when the subject matter is shown in a manner appropriate both for a church and for the Church.
Notice, therefore, how in the lower part of the painting, we see the moment of St Agnes’ death, but without any of the ugliness that a painter like Caravaggio would have brought to such a moment. (Caravaggio was sharply criticized by another very influential writer on art of this period, Giovanni Bellori, for the excessively stark realism with which he depicted scenes of this kind.) It captures the very moment when she is stabbed in the neck, but her martyrdom is shown not so such by blood coming from the wound as by her white garment, the symbol of its cause, and the red robe over it, symbolizing the martyrdom itself.
The face of the man stabbing her is obscured in shadow, to indicate that although he is the one acting at the moment, he is not the focus of the painting; indeed, he is irrelevant to the true significance of what is taking place. Agnes’ face, even though it is right next to his, is brightly illuminated, and at the very center of this part of the composition, looking upwards towards heaven. We see less of her actual suffering, not because it is unimportant, but because it is far less important than her love for God, and the courage which it gives her to accept a violent death as the way to enter into His presence. To her left we see her traditional emblem, a lamb, also another symbol of virginity.
Particularly interesting is the group of three women to the right of the Saint, each of whom represents a state of life honored and consecrated by the Church in different ways: a young woman, representing virgins, an older woman representing widows, and a young mother, representing the state of matrimony (which the Protestants rejected as a sacrament.) This last is very similar, both in the position of her body and the way her hair is done, to a figure in the same part of Raphael’s last painting, the Transfiguration of Christ, an homage to one of the artists of the later Renaissance most admired by those of the Baroque era.
In the upper part, Christ passes to an angel the crown of virginity and the palm of martyrdom to bring down to Agnes. Domenichino places just one part of the angel, the left foot, within the architectural element that separates the upper section from the lower, to indicate that this is the last moment before Agnes receives them, passing definitively from earth into the glory of the Saints. The angels playing musical instruments (each one different) are included here not just as a conventional symbol of heaven, but also as a reminder of the importance of music to Catholic worship (in contrast to the generally rather more austere services of the Protestants), and the vital role which music played in women’s religious houses, and in women’s education generally.
In response to the elitism inherent in many forms of Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, we see that God is taking a direct and personal interest in Saint Agnes, a person of absolutely no account to the world, but who will in just one moment be welcomed into heaven as a witness to the true Faith, and honored by the Church as one of the greatest of her many Saints.
By a nice coincidence, a Dominican friend happened to recommend this polyphonic setting of the antiphon for the Magnificat at First Vespers of St Agnes by the highly prolific English composer Peter Philips (1560 ca. – 1628), who lived most of his life in exile on the Continent. After the death of his wife and child, he was ordained a priest sometime in the first decade of the 17th century; he composed hundreds of motets, and a large number of pieces for various instruments and ensembles.
Beata Agnes in medio flammarum expansis manibus orabat: “Te deprecor, omnipotens, adorande, colende Pater metuende; quia per sanctum Filium tuum evasi minas sacrilegi tyranni, et carnis spurcitias immaculato calle transivi; et ecce venio ad te quem amavi, quem quaesivi, quem semper optavi.” – The blessed Agnes, in the midst of the flames, prayed with her hands outstreched, “I beseech Thee, almighty Father, who art to be adored, and worshipped, and feared; because through Thy holy Son, I have escaped the threats of the impious tyrant, and have passed with feet unstained through the filth of the flesh (this refers particularly to the traditional story that during her martyrdom, Agnes was sent to a house of prostitution, but miraculously defended from the young men who would have dishonored her); and behold I come to Thee whom I have loved, whom I have sought, whom I have ever desired.”

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