- Peta McCartney
the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a 450-year-old painting by 16th-century Italian artist Lavinia Fontana, through a bequest established by English-born Australian entrepreneur and philanthropist Alfred Felton after his death in 1904.
The lives of this couple, beyond time and space, intertwined when Fontana painted the mystical marriage of Saint Catherine in Bologna around 1575, when she was around 23 years old.
Lavinia Fontana, ‘Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine’ c.1575 (oil on copper 48.5 x 33.6 cm)/National Gallery of Victoria, Felton Bequest, 2021
More than 300 years later, Felton, whose fortune was estimated at half a million pounds at his death, had wanted the money to be used to finance acquisitions of works of art to donate to the NGV, as well as to charities in Victoria, especially those that benefit women and children.
From 2022, the painting will be exhibited at the NGV after being sold by an Italian family through a London dealer. It is the first painting by the artist to enter a public collection in Australia.
It depicts a vision experienced by the Christian martyr, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c287 – c305 CE), in which she consecrated herself to Christ.
“Catherine was the daughter of a Roman consul in Egypt and she converted to Christianity; she was a great intellectual and began to convert many people, which caught the eye of Roman Emperor Maxentius. He attacked her and brought her to Rome and she was tortured to convert back to paganism,” said Laurie Benson, curator of international paintings at NGV. View.
“She’s sort of the first ‘Bride of Christ’, because that’s what it’s all about – Saint Catherine’s mystical marriage, where she consecrates her virginity to Christ.
“She is tortured and brought before a council of Roman senators and intellectuals, and in fact, with her arguments and her ideas, she actually converts many of them to Christianity, so it has the absolute opposite effect.”
When she refuses to marry Maxence, he orders her execution by torturing her on the Catherine wheel, before having her beheaded.
“If you look at our painting in the lower right corner, Catherine’s wheel is actually broken, because when she was tortured on it, to be executed, the wheel exploded by a miraculous intervention. Then he had her beheaded , so she was a martyr in the end,” Benson said.
Many of Fontana’s early works featured strong and powerful women from ancient mythology and Christian history. Besides Saint Catherine, Saint Elizabeth, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, she also painted the Old Testament heroine Judith beheading Holofernes and the goddess Venus.
Fontana is the first woman to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia di San Luca – the guild of painters in Rome; she established her own studio and painted throughout her married life and the birth of her 11 children, three of whom survived her.
Most of Fontana’s paintings are religious scenes and portraits, and Benson said most major galleries around the world own some of his work.
“In terms of painting, it was just one of those groundbreaking moments. The Catholic Church was reacting to the Counter-Reformation and one of the big attacks…was that art got out of control, stopped being reverent…artists were painting sacrilegious paintings,” Benson said. The reaction to this in Italy, and particularly in Bologna, was a church edict to return to restrained compositions and naturalism, which Fontana closely followed.
“A Bolognese theologian…wrote a treatise explaining to artists how to paint and Lavinia works almost directly from this manual. She paints nothing like her father…and the artists of the following century followed her instructions.
Tony Ellwood, director of the NGV, said in a statement that the “extraordinary painting” testifies to the prodigious talent of Fontana, who would be the first woman to become a professional painter in Europe.
“This is an important addition to the NGV collection and joins other key acquisitions of recent years that take important steps to address historic gender imbalances by highlighting the artistic achievements of women across the world. Art History The Mystical Marriage of Saint Catherine is the first work by a known female artist to enter the Gallery’s collection and establishes a legacy that will resonate with generations of visitors.
The gallery said it was an “extraordinarily enlightened act for the times” that Fontana was actively encouraged by her parents to become an artist. His father, Prospero Fontana, was his teacher and strongly promoted his career.
His painting, which was acquired for an undisclosed sum, will sit in the NGV collection alongside that of his father, Holy Family with Saint Jerome, a Martyr Woman and the Child Saint John the Baptist, which was also acquired by the Felton bequest for GNV in 1961.
Sir Andrew Grimwade, chairman of Felton’s Legacy Committee, said he was “delighted” to donate Fontana’s masterpiece to the NGV, describing it as one of the great acquisitions of the bequest.