ITALIAN masters         




(Bologna, 1577 – 1668)


Saint Domenic and an Angel


Oil on canvas; 105.5 x 138.7

By Daniele Benati:

The saint, seen from below to emphasize the gesture of his left arm pointing upward, is portrayed in the act of preaching from a pulpit on which rests a golden cup full of roses, mixed with rosary beads. Next to him is an angel who is intent on tying a bunch of purple and white roses with string. The absence of a black cloak, characteristic of Dominican apparel, might suggest a saint of a different order, such as a Carthusian: and it is for this reason that in the past the principal figure in this painting had been identified as St. Bernard, who, however, had no relation to the cult of the Rosary. In fact, the white robe and hood are characteristic of the order of Preachers founded by St. Dominic, who only wear the black cloak outside the monastery and certainly not, as in this case, while preaching in church. There is no doubt, therefore, that the protagonist of the canvas is precisely Domenic, who, following a miraculous apparition of the Madonna, is credited with the invention of the Rosary: sometimes referred to as a "garland" of prayers to the Virgin.

The painting qualifies as an important addition to the known works of the Bolognese painter, Alessandro Tiarini, to whom it plainly belongs on stylistic grounds. There is little information about its ancient provenance, but the painting might have been owned by one of the many Companies of the Rosary that arose after the victory of the Catholic League over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).  The practice of gathering to recite the Rosary, which was already quite widespread, was made official by Sixtus V. Given the frequent use of religious subjects in paintings destined for the decoration of private interiors, one can not however exclude the possibility that this painting was intended to be positioned on the upper level of a gallery hanging, and thus seen from below (di sotto in su).

The stylistic considerations in the painting allow us to place its execution within the highest phase of Tiarini's activity. The typology adopted for the face of the saint, traits of a mature and passionate man, was already used by the painter in the 'Quadrone' (huge painting) of the Miracle of San Domenico that adorns the entrance to the chapel of the mother-church of Bologna in which the body of the founder (1614) is conserved.  The strong chiaroscuro and emphatic gestures, that give rise to powerful trajectories, are typical of the painter during his prolonged activity in Reggio Emilia (1618-1630), as has often been pointed out, and which constitutes the highest and most productive period of his career. In this regard I would draw attention to the frescoes in the west transept of the Basilica of Our Lady of Ghiara, where a similar impetuosity of gestures can be found in the Meeting of Deborah and Barak (1619), or, in the same church, the decoration of the chapel of Monte di Pietà (also in 1619), where the angels with the symbols of the Passion are robust, working class youths, like the one depicted in our painting. I would be remised not to mention a painting executed probably in the same years and sent from Reggio to Bologna, the beautiful Ecstasy of Saint Catherine of Siena (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), and, for the same type of dynamic composition, a painting of such a different subject such as Rinaldo and Armida in the collection of the Banca Popolare Emilia Romagna.

These are works in which you identify the unusual path followed by Tiarini towards a "Baroque" principle, that is, clarity of subject matter, which was demanded by the Council of Trent, a kind of "illustrated book" for the uneducated (Biblia pauperum). The care taken by the painter in studying the preliminary study of the texts for his subject matter is well known.  The painter’s aim was twofold to demonstrate the detailed richness of the story, while at the same time to lead to a clear understanding of the meaning contained. Tiarini was described by Carlo Cesare Malvasia as "a great reader": "He possessed too quick and fertile a conception; and yet still before beginning a painting, he read the texts that contained the facts about the story to be represented very well and deeply; reflecting afterwards on the place, the time, the occasion, the means, the purpose, and in short, every circumstance, every incident, in order to then be able to safely play with the embellishments, but never deviating from the real truth as to the essence and substance ".

In our painting the image is born from a careful reflection on the intended meaning: the fervent gestures of the saint restores his commitment to convey to the listener the values of his faith; moreover the playful episode of the angel who carefully composes bunches of wild roses suggests the value of prayer, addressed to the Virgin with a pure soul and full dedication. The use of light contributes to the dramatic effect in that it helps the saint to emerge in his white habit from the darkness of the background suggested by his illuminated gaze, he looks beyond the pulpit that marks the space in which the viewer stands.  [In other words he speaks directly to us, as well as the faithful crowd behind us.]

It is also known how such powers of observation were developed by Tiarini, first thanks to his apprenticeship with Bartolomeo Cesi and then through frequent visits to Florence (where he was sheltered in order to escape the consequences of a dispute) and finally Passignano. In Bologna he strengthened his pictorial vein with the examples of Ludovico Carracci and his most gifted students, so as to acquire a highly composite physiognomy that remains coherent and personal. The painting in question, which can also be recommended for its excellent state of preservation, constitutes an absolutely paradigmatic and unforgettable example.