This painting, which has suffered extensive damage and is currently undergoing conservation, is signed and dated on the paper on the marble ledge. The writing translates as: ‘Andrea thread and needle follower of Giovanni Bellini painted this in 1504.’ Andrea Previtali signed himself ‘thread and needle’ because his father was a tailor. Previtali’s painting is similar to Giovanni Bellini’s Giovanelli Sacra Conversazione (Accademia, Venice), which may explain why he signed his name as well as his own.
The infant Christ places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger, echoing her vision that she had a ‘mystic marriage’ with Christ. The Virgin holds Saint Catherine’s finger while Saint John the Baptist watches. The painting would probably have been used for private devotion at home.
A painting by Previtali in S. Giobbe in Venice with the same composition is likely to have been painted first and the National Gallery picture painted later by Previtali.
This painting is signed and dated on the piece of paper resting on the marble ledge. The writing says: ‘+ 1504 / Andreas. Cordelle. Agij. Dissipulus. / iouanis. Bellini pinxit.’ It means: ‘Andrea thread and needle follower of Giovanni Bellini painted this in 1504.’ Andrea Previtali signed himself ‘thread and needle’ because his father was a tailor. He also used a range of other signatures. Previtali’s painting is similar, especially in the figure of John the Baptist, to Giovanni Bellini’s Sacra Conversazione Giovanelli of about 1500, now in the Accademia, Venice. This may explain why Previtali signed Bellini’s name as well as his own, although he may have actually trained with Cima.
The infant Christ sits naked on the Virgin’s lap and places a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger. The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine is a story in The Golden Legend, and tells how the noblewoman Catherine of Alexandria who had converted to Christianity had a vision of receiving a wedding ring from Christ. Because Saint Catherine is receiving the ring, Saint John the Baptist appears as a bystander or witness (he is also positioned slightly behind the Virgin) but there is no reason to suppose that he would have been considered less important than Saint Catherine. The painting would probably have been used for private devotion at home and the choice of saints probably related to the person or family who commissioned it.
A painting by Previtali in S. Giobbe in Venice has the same composition and is approximately the same size as the National Gallery’s painting. A tracing or cartoon may have been used for both pictures. The paintings are not identical in the smaller details (for example, the Virgin’s headdress is more elaborate in the S. Giobbe version and Saint Catherine’s hat is striped) and the sky and landscape are entirely different. The double veil worn by the Virgin in the S. Giobbe version tends to be more common in Italian paintings from the late fifteenth century, meaning that the S. Giobbe version is likely to be the earlier version and the National Gallery painting the later one. The S. Giobbe version is also in much better condition than the National Gallery’s picture.
The painting is currently undergoing conservation. By the time the National Gallery purchased the painting in 1894, the paint in Saint Catherine’s drapery and in the yellow lining of the Virgin’s robe had ‘perished in remarkable manner, being blotched and discoloured like the plaster on a mildewed wall, or as though eaten away by acid’. The picture, painted on a wooden panel, had become disfigured by cracks which passed through Christ’s forehead and arm, and was covered with a very thick and discoloured varnish. However, the sky and the marble ledge remained in good condition – in fact, finger prints can still be observed in the clouds, which are a characteristic of Previtali’s early work.
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