Ambrogio da Fossano detto il Bergognone - inv. 1119

Ambrogio da Fossano called Bergognone (active 1481-1523)

Saint Catherine of Alexandria
1510 c.
tempera and oil on panel  
97,2 x 55,5 cm
1879 bequest Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli
Inv. 1119

Black Room
Go to:

Catherine of Alexandria, a legendary figure who apparently lived at the beginning of the fourth century, was thought to be the daughter of the king of Cyprus and was converted to the Christian faith by a hermit. To a proposal of marriage from Maxentius (or Massimino) she replied that she was a bride of Christ and so he imprisoned her and condemned her to tear apart by two toothed wheels, which were destroyed by divine intervention. So Catherine was beheaded.

Bergognone painted the saint here with many of her attributes: the royal crown, the palm of martyrdom, the toothed wheel and the sword for beheading. She has been painted in splendid colours: the red of her mantle contrasting with the dark green of her robe, highlighted by embroidery in gold. Similarly the neckline of her dress, her belt and precious details on the crown and sword hilt have also been picked out in gold. The head of the emperor has been included low down on the left: with its heightened realism, it might even be a portrait.

Dated to about 1510, the painting belongs to from Bergognone's mature period. Flemish characteristics common to all his works can be perceived, especially in the precision of the drawing. He was probably nicknamed 'Bergognone' because of these Flemish details since Flanders belonged to the dukes of Burgundy. The likeness of the emperor's face might also feel the influence of the realism of northern paintings, but a lack of hardness in the lines also refers to the 'affectionate naturalism' of Lombard art of the second half of the fifteenth century. Note the contrast between the saint's noble, statuary pose and her childish face with delicate pink cheeks, narrow lips and lowered gaze, veiled in melancholy.

Similarities between this painting and a panel with San Gerolamo penitente (Penitent Saint Jerome), in the Pinacoteca of Castello Sforzesco in Milan, has recently led to the hypothesis that the two works might have originally come from the same, unidentified, polyptych.

H.G.