“Saint Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin”, Guercino, 1652-53, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Originally painted for the Church of San Francesco in Reggio Emilia, this work was in the collections of the Spencer family from the 1740’s until it was purchased for the Kansas Museum of Art in 1983. In fact, from the mid 1700’s, Guercino’s paintings were the most sought after by British collectors. In this there is much irony, because Guercino had refused an invitation from Charles I to go to to England. In his biographies of Baroque artists published in 1678, Carlo Malavasia wrote of Guercino that he did not “desire to converse with heretics, so as not to contaminate the goodness of his angelic habits, and so also to avoid exposing himself to such a disastrous voyage, in a climate so remote from his own people.” This was the first major work by Guercino to reach England. Painted in the world of the Counter Reformation Baroque, it could not be more Catholic. There is a long-standing and widespread tradition that St Luke was an artist and that he painted the Virgin and Child from life. For this very reason, St Luke is the patron saint of artists and of artists’ guilds. This painting sits within the Counter Reformation’s affirmation of sacred images in the face of the Protestant rejection of their devotional use as idolatry. St Luke is shown as an artist holding his brushes and a palate loaded with paint in his left hand. With his right hand, he points towards a painting of the Virgin and Child. Unlike earlier artist’s treatment of the subject, the Virgin and Child are actually not in the room with St Luke, nor in the adjacent room, nor is St Luke enjoying a vision of them, nor is it clear that St Luke has actually painted this picture. Certainly, this angel represents the divine inspiration that brought this work into being. The angel’s outstretched wing overshadows St Luke and the angelic hand touches the sacred image. However, the contribution of St Luke is ill-defined. Compare this to the way that Caravaggio had first depicted St Matthew as Evangelist in his “ St Matthew and the Angel” of 1602 (see scotland.op.org/news). The message here is surely that religious art can be on a par with scripture. Inspired by God, it is fit for true devotion. But notice the table in the background. Upon it there is upon it a sort of tableau. An ink well and an ox sit upon a book. The book is closed and the objects look as if they are not real, but just ornaments. By contrast the Virgin and Child look as if they are alive, not statues. The ink well and the ox are both symbols of the Evangelist. The book surely represents the Gospel itself. But these are clearly relegated to the background, whereas the painting is very much in the foreground. Is this a painting about the superiority of sacred images over the sacred text in a world where so many were illiterate? if so, then the painting is less about St Luke and more about the place of art in the life of faith. We understand St Luke as an artist in so far as he gives us some of the greatest of stories in the gospels in which events are so vividly described. Thanks to Luke’s consummate writing, in our minds’ eyes, we can see for example, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan or the two thieves on Calvary. But in this painting Guercino does seem to put the sacred text in second place. I just wonder if any of those 17th Century Spencers understand just how anti-Protestant their newly work actually was. The Feast of St Luke is celebrated this coming Friday.
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