Burial of St. Petronilla

(1623; Rome, Capitoline Museum)
   This work is Guercino's famous altarpiece for the altar of St. Petronilla in St. Peter's, Rome, commissioned by Pope Gregory XV. Of huge proportions, the painting depicts the burial of the supposed daughter of St. Peter who was martyred for refusing to compromise her chastity. The work is no longer in situ and, therefore, it has lost Guercino's intended effect of making it seem as if the body of Petronilla were being lowered onto the actual altar above which the painting was originally placed. This is an element Guercino borrowed from Caravaggio who used the device in his Entombment (1603-1604) for the Vittrici Chapel in the Chiesa Nuova, Rome. In the painting's upper portion, Guercino again showed the saint, now being received into heaven by the Savior while a putto gives her the crown of martyrdom. The painting uses a Carraccesque zigzagging composition that leads the viewer's eye from the earthly to the heavenly realm, this movement enhanced by Guercino's loose brushwork. The constant repetition of earth tones and deep blues, typical of Guercino's palette, serves to visually unify the lower and upper parts of the work. As a product of the Counter-Reformation, the painting speaks of the nobility of Christian martyrdom, deemed pointless by Protestants.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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