Alessandro Magnasco - inv. 328
This painting is considered one of Magnasco’s masterpieces. The scene is unusual for many reasons: a majestic centrally-planned building occupies the whole canvas; inside this dimly-lit great hall Saint Carlo Borromeo, clothed in red, stands out surrounded by clerics, angels, half-naked men and women with children.
The clerics kneeling in front of the archbishop belong to the order of the Oblates, founded by Borromeo in 1578. The painting shows Saint Carlo in the act of receiving, or possibly dismissing, some of them.
It is not easy to know the patron who commissioned a painting of this subject. An answer might be found in the entourage of archbishop Benedetto Erba Odescalchi (1712-1737). In 1721, he allowed the foundation of a new branch of the Oblates, the Missionary Oblates of Rho. In line with the word missionary emphasised in the name of the new order, Magnasco was asked to portray Saint Carlo in the act of sending the Oblates out on their evangelising mission. The restless horse, held with difficulty by a squire, would seem to support this hypothesis, suggesting an imminent departure.
The figures are of such high quality that scholars are inclined to put this painting alongside another even more famous one: Il furto sacrilege (The Sacrilegious Robbery), now conserved in the Diocesan Museum in Milan. The latter, realised not before 1731, during the last years of his stay in Milan, represents one of the peaks of Magnasco’s mature works. Most probably also this painting belongs to this successful moment: the darting and flickering figures are painted with skilful brushstrokes, with spots of light that illuminate only parts of their otherwise almost monochrome bodies.