This unpublished painting is an exciting addition to the oeuvre of Artemesia Gentileschi, and would appear to date to the artist's maturity (see below). It represents Saint Catherine of Alexandria, holding the palm of her martyrdom in one hand and her book in the other which she props up on the spiked wheel (an instrument of her martydom). She looks up in in astonishment overhead, and it is likely that Artemesia is depicting the moment of her vision of the Madonna and Child.
In fact, the composition is striking in its similarity to depictions of the male evangelist saints or church fathers. Catherine holds her frond in her fingers almost like a quill (albeit in her left hand) and a book in the other. The upward gaze was the usual position to represent divine inspiration, and the pose would appear to show an awareness of such paintings by artists like Ribera (see, for example, his Saint Jerome in the Doria-Pamphilij collection, Rome, N. Spinosa, Ribera, Naples 2003, p. 272, cat. A66, illus.).
The subject matter of Saint Catherine was treated on at least one other occasion by Artemesia, and such a painting is famously mentioned in letters of late 1635 and early 1636 that she wrote to Andrea Cioli, the secretary to Granduke Ferdinando di' Medici offering him in gratitude "un quatro che un pezzo fa ho finito con l'Imagine di Santa Caterina dedicato per V.S.Ill.ma. (a painting that I finished a bit ago with the image of Saint Catherine, dedicated to your Excellency)." It is tempting to associate those documents with a painting of this subject in the Uffizi, Florence (inv.1890, no. 8032, see Artemesia, exhibition catalogue, Casa Buonarotti, Florence, Rome 1991, pp. 147-149, no. 18). The Uffizi picture is of a different tonality and conception than the present canvas and must date to about the time the letters were written.
We are grateful to Prof. Nicola Spinosa who, based on images, confirms this painting to be by Artemisia and dates it to her second and final sojourn in Naples, from 1641-1652.
The present painting is accompanied by an unpublished article by Dr. Gianni Papi confirming the attribution. He dates the painting to Artemisia's first sojourn (1630-38) and suggests it is very possibly the painting intended for Andrea Cioli (see above).
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