Pietro da Cortona’s “Saint Martina Refuses to Adore the Idols,” the central work in the current show at the Princeton Art Museum, comes from a milieu relatively low on the horizons of many contemporary museumgoers — Rome in the 1650s. The tightly-focused exhibit takes Cortona’s painting as its point of departure for a carefully-selected display that draws from the museum collection as well as works on loan.

Guest curator Jorg Merz, an authority on the artist, has selected 20 works for inclusion. Betsy Rosasco, the museum’s research curator of later Western art, was instrumental in bringing the exhibition into being. A complementary exhibit of seven drawings from the museum’s collection was organized by Laura Giles, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings. The show runs until January 21.

Artistically, the period when Cortona painted his “Saint Martina Refuses” was the height of the baroque, a time when visual drama reigned. It was also the end of the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church, responding to the Protestant Reformation, attempted to revitalize and purify itself. Among the projects of the Counter-Reformation was a re-assessment of early saints in order to separate the genuine from the bogus. Martyr saints, both male and female, attracted special attention at the time. Not surprisingly, the movement impacted artistic production and nudged artists to depict officially approved saints. Saint Martina was one of a coterie of virgin martyrs whose credentials the Catholic Church validated in 17th century Rome.

Saint Martina was martyred in the year 228 because she refused to honor the Roman gods. Her martyrdom included being beaten with iron chains, being tortured with iron rods bearing talons for tearing the flesh, being exposed to a lion in an amphitheater, and being burned on a pyre; finally, she was decapitated. Cortona’s “Saint Martina Refuses,” which is in the Princeton University Art Museum’s permanent collection, depicts three miracles that occurred during the saint’s defiance of Roman authority. A sudden storm extinguished the flames of the pyre where she was to be burned. A lightning bolt toppled the statue of a Roman god in the temple behind her. And an earthquake overturned the burning tripod holding the statue.

Cortona’s Saint Martina embodies the ideal of feminine beauty in his day. She has long flowing hair, a soft full face supported by a soft thick neck, hands showing no veins or muscles, and no detectable waistline. She wears garments that gave Cortona a chance to show his skill at painting fabrics of varying weights. She gazes upward as three cherubs look on; their complexions are every bit as good as hers is.

Cortona had a special devotion to Saint Martina that stemmed from his discovery in 1634 of her relics in a Roman church he was rebuilding. Like his fellow contemporary, polymath Gianlorenzo Bernini, the architect and sculptor, Cortona was an architect in addition to being an artist.

Constructed in the year 700, the church on which Cortona worked as an architect was originally devoted to Saint Martina. In 1588 Pope Sixtus V gave the building to the Roman artists’ academy, the Accademia di San Luca (Academy of Saint Luke), and the church was renamed in honor of both Saint Luke and Saint Martina (SS. Luca e Martina). The high altar was rededicated to Saint Luke. Cortona, president of the Academy of Saint Luke, found the relics of Saint Martina and her companions in the crypt.

Cortona hoped to create a mausoleum in the crypt for himself and his friends. After he ceased being president of the Academy in 1636, Cortona took on the financing of the crypt and devoted himself to the lower church. In 1666 the Academy definitively refused to entitle him to the crypt and Cortona resigned as architect. The Academy selected Saint Luke as the principal patron of the church. Cortona died in 1669 and left a considerable part of his estate to the saint and her veneration in the church.

The sole altar dedicated to Martina remains in the crypt. Today, because the church is open only infrequently, it is difficult to time a visit.

I do not find it easy to think myself into the mid-17th century. In some respects, our current mental picture of the world did not exist. The idea that Europe required a universal Christian religion was still prevalent. The idea that political and military power was the business of secular states had not yet been clearly established. Only well after the Thirty Years War ended in 1648 were these notions taken for granted. The war jolted all of Europe and realigned political and economic power.

In the attempt to look at Cortona’s “Saint Martina Refuses” in a way that makes sense to me, I searched for analogies. Although those that popped into my mind were imperfect, they helped me find a way to become engaged with the Cortona painting. I decided that Cortona’s painting was comparable to Andy Warhol’s silk screen depictions of Marilyn Monroe and to Vincent van Gogh’s “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat.” In all cases, a known person is represented by an artist with a unique approach.

Movie actress Marilyn Monroe was a recognized sex symbol. After her suicide in 1964 Warhol superimposed vivid color on top of one of her publicity shots. The various garish Marilyns made viewers re-think Monroe as an icon and notice Warhol as an artist.

Van Gogh was a model of emotional tragedy in the days before psychopharmaceuticals. With his characteristic anguished brush strokes animating a vividly composed painting, the talented artist hints at his haunted and vulnerable emotional life.

Cortona, the leading painter of the Roman Baroque, presages what Warhol and van Gogh did, using his arsenal of conceptual and technical skills to depict a figure known to viewers of his work. The importance of his “Saint Martina Refuses” can be judged by the fact that six versions of the painting were later made. The Princeton show includes an engraving based on the painting.

About 10 years before “Saint Martina Refuses,” Cortona painted “The Virgin and Child and Saint Martina,” which stresses the closeness between the two women and underplays Martina’s martyrdom. Cortona’s original is in the Louvre. The version displayed in the Princeton show was probably painted in 1643 and is on loan from Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum. Here, the loving contact of the beautiful saint with the Virgin and Child is intimately shown. Martina absentmindedly holds the clawed rod that is the symbol of her martyrdom while a blonde child hands her a palm branch to symbolize her triumph over martyrdom. Included in the Princeton show are a variety of drawings and engravings that amply illustrate the translation of Cortona’s painting into other media.

Complementing the main Cortona show is a separate mini-exhibit of seven rarely-shown masterworks from the museum’s collection of Italian drawings. Consisting of works by Cortona and his contemporaries, all of the pieces focus on the human figure. Cortona’s preliminary sketch for the “Age of Iron,” a display of violence and one of four frescos in Florence’s Pitti Palace, is included here. Particularly compelling among the drawings is Bernini’s commanding “Seated Male Nude,” a recent acquisition, which shows a young man whose fitness communicates across the centuries. His body tightly coiled and his face turned away from the viewer, the youth grasps a staff. He is poised to stand up on his powerfully-drawn muscular legs.

The Cortona show documents not only the artistic endeavors close to his “Saint Martina Refuses to Adore the Idols.” In addition it hints at the political jockeying that joined the worlds of religion and art in Rome during the middle of the 17th century. Says guest curator Jorg Martin Merz: “Altogether the images of Saint Martina appear as a massive advertising campaign launched by Pietro de Cortona and Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the patrons of the lower and upper church, respectively. The rarity of the works gives an additional value to their artistic quality.”

A Painting in Context: Pietro da Cortona’s “Saint Martina Refuses to Adore the Idols,” on view through January 21, Princeton University Art Museum. Curated by Jorg Merz, an authority on the artist, the exhibit includes more than 20 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and books that document Cortona’s working process. The museum is open to the public without charge Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Visit www.princetonartmuseum.org or call 609-258-3788.

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