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Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona, 1701. Museo Diocesano, Cortona.
If Crespi is remembered at all today, it must be for his genre paintings, the subject of an exhibition (Giuseppe Maria Crespi and the emergence of genre painting in Italy) in 1986. Crespi’s The flea hunt (Louvre; probably late 1720s – link) and A courtyard scene (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale; probably 1730s) are probably his two best known genre pictures, while his series of the Seven sacraments (Gemäldegallerie, Dresden; c. 1712) and the superb St John Nepomuk confessing the Queen of Bohemia (Turin, Galleria Sabauda; 1743) are among his best known sacred works.
Born in 1665 in Bologna, Crespi’s early study included periods with Angelo Michele Toni, Domenico Maria Canuti and Carlo Cignani. He also appears to have made an intense study of the work of the Carracci, particularly Ludovico, and the altarpieces of Guercino. Crespi travelled to Venice to absorb the work of Titian, Veronese and Correggio and to the Marche to study the work of Barocci. The influence of Barocci’s pastel style and the colour harmonies of Veronese are evident in his first major work, The wedding at Cana (Chicago; Art Institute – link), and the genre-scene style of this work already gives an intimation of the thrust of his later work. Crespi’s first major sacred work was the altarpiece for the Bolognese church of S. Nicolò degli Albari; in this work, evidence of the impact of Ludovico Carracci is particularly strong.
The Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona (Fig. 1) is an important painting in Crespi’s early output, as it helps to fix a stable date in the otherwise uncertain period of the painter’s life after he had returned from Vienna, where he had been employed in the decorations of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s Winter Palace. The painting was commissioned by Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici through his Bolognese agent in 1701. The painting was intended to replace Lanfranco’s altarpiece (Fig. 2) on the same subject, painted in 1622, which was removed from its place in the church of S. Margherita Nuova and carried off to Florence to become part of the Prince’s collection (where it remained). The painting was unveiled on New Year’s Day 1702, with the Prince praising it highly. Crespi went on to become the Prince’s pittore attuale and enjoyed the Prince’s patronage until his death in 1713.
The subject of both paintings, Margaret of Cortona, was born in Lavignano in Tuscany in 1247. When she was around 17, she left home to become the mistress of (it is believed) the son of Guglielmo di Pecora, lord of Valiano. Although his promises of marriage went unfulfilled, Margaret eventually bore him a son. The man was killed in an attack and Margaret’s call to a life of penitence was prompted by the discovery of his mutilated body in a wood. Margaret attempted to return to her father’s home, but her stepmother refused to have her in the house and Margaret went on to Cortona, arriving around 1273. She took up a life of mortification and penance as a Franciscan Tertiary and experienced visions and auditions of Christ that were dictated to her confessor, Fra Giunta Bevegnati, and recorded in her Legend, completed in 1308 about 11 years after the saint’s death. Margaret was revered as a saint even during her lifetime, according to the Legend, and was the subject of popular veneration in Cortona from the day of her death. Her feast has been observed with papal approval in Cortona and in the Franciscan orders since the 16th century but she was only canonised formally by Benedict XIII in 1728.
Margaret’s Legend largely comprises accounts of her auditions of Christ and her discussions with him. She seems rarely to have seen him: one of the few exceptions occurs when Christ appears to her in child-like form (Legend, IV, 4). The other major contribution to Margaret’s iconography, Guercino’s 1648 Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona (Vatican: Pinacoteca) (Fig. 3), attempts to capture Margaret’s interior dialogue with Christ by alluding to his presence through a glowing cloud into which putti direct Margaret’s attention. Margaret, kneeling before an altar or prie-dieu, turns towards the cloud as though listening attentively to the voice of Christ.
Lanfranco’s painting differs from Guercino’s in showing Christ directly and Crespi’s, clearly dependent on Lanfranco’s, also shows Christ descending towards Margaret. Despite the obvious structural similarities and their repetition of motifs (for example, the dog in the lower left corner), these paintings differ radically in conception from each other. They differ so radically, in fact, that one is struck that the same Prince Ferdinando who liked the Lanfranco well enough to ‘borrow’ it also liked the Crespi.
The most immediate difference is formed by the alteration in the colour scheme. Lanfranco’s painting breathes a warm orange radiance that gives visual expression to the incendium amoris the saint is undergoing. Crespi’s painting is dominated by black, out of which the quivering, vibrating white accents of the figures emerge almost spectrally. Crespi’s often quite unrefined sketchy brush style in which swatches of pasty, almost chalky white are abruptly contrasted with dense, unyielding blacks, dominates this composition. The presence of so much glowering black in what is a large canvas (230 x 182cm) creates a threatening intensity in this image. If we did not know this were the ecstasy of St Margaret, we might well believe it to be her nightmare, an adumbration of Goya’s Caprichos.
Both encounters take place in a real place, which the dog helps to signify –presumably a room in the house she occupied just outside Cortona adjoining the disused church of S. Basile where she made her home until her death. For Lanfranco, this room limits the space within which the encounter takes place. Although two angels form the right-hand limit of the encounter, their function is merely to support the failing physical strength of the saint. These angels underline that Lanfranco’s conception of ecstasy is one of visitation, and in a life filled with visitations, physical and auditory, is it difficult to say exactly which moment of the saint’s life is being depicted here. Lanfranco recapitulates elements of the ecstatic tropes of the Baroque in order to depict this saint’s experience, tropes most familiar from Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa of Avila (link). In Lanfranco’s painting, we see what the saint sees.
In Crespi’s image, the saint remains alert, her attention captivated by a vision she does not see but experiences internally. The function of the angel at the right-hand margin has been reconfigured by Crespi. This angel does not support Margaret; it serves to delimit a Christ-generated space that is taking shape, becoming in the mind of Margaret. She remains fixed in the room of her house and we see what the saint experiences – that is, we see her thoughts, gradually coming into flickering focus under Crespi’s brush. Crespi grants us access to Margaret’s thoughts by declining to show her in direct, visual communication with Christ; to see him, we must think like her. Margaret also mirrors Christ’s pointing gesture, showing an act of conformation with the Saviour whom she experiences internally. I believe this gesture also allows us to fix the precise experience in the saint’s life Crespi hoped to depict, the moment at which she passed into a direct, personal experience of filiation in Christ. Having resolved on a life of penance, Margaret sought to draw closer and closer to Christ. He insisted on calling her poverella in her visions until she engaged in the eight-day act of confession and purgation described in the Legend (II, 6). After this, Margaret’s relationship with Christ deepened as he called her ‘child’. Crespi’s painting records the moment at which Christ adopts Margaret as his child. Pointing to himself, Christ seems to say ‘Poverella non sei più, ma mia figlia’; Margaret, full of the humility the Legend stresses as one of her characteristics, answers ‘Io?’. Crespi’s conception of ecstasy is thus one of participation, a profoundly personal and sympathetic look into the key moment of a saint’s life.
© John Weretka
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Figure 1. Giuseppe Maria Crespi ‘Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona‘ 1701. Museo Diocesano, Cortona.
Figure 2. Giuseppe Lanfranco ‘Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona‘, 1622. Galleria Palatina, Florence.
Figure 3. Guercino ‘Ecstasy of St Margaret of Cortona‘ 1648. Vatican Pinacoteca.