Four Saints for Palazzo Barberini
These paintings were made by two rising stars of the art world in Rome in the 1620s – one by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the other by Andrea Sacchi. Both depict two saints at half-length, tightly framed and dramatically lit. They are almost exactly the same size, seem to have been made at around the same date and were in the collection of the powerful Barberini family.
It has been suggested that they were made as companion pieces, but documents suggest that the Sacchi painting wasn’t acquired by the Barberini until 1661 at the earliest, more than 30 years after they bought Bernini’s picture. Close examination has also shown that the Bernini painting was trimmed along both vertical sides after it was finished while the Sacchi was extended slightly, presumably so that the sizes of the two would match. On balance, it seems unlikely that they were originally made as a pair. Instead, the similarities seem to have tempted the Barberini family to adapt the pictures and hang them together at a later date.
These paintings were made by two rising stars of the art world in Rome in the 1620s – one is by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the other, Andrea Sacchi – who shared the same powerful patron, Maffeo Barberini (Pope Urban VIII). There are clear similarities between the pictures. Both depict two saints at half-length, one positioned slightly behind the other. The compositions are tightly framed and dramatically lit, and use the same palette of earth and flesh tones offset by a black background.
There are interesting contrasts too. Bernini’s pair of saints are the apostles Andrew and Thomas, who were among the first disciples of Christ. They knew each other well and are shown engaged in a discussion over a religious text. Sacchi’s pair are Saints Anthony Abbot and Francis of Assisi, who were from later ages and lived at different times. Both were strongly associated with monasticism and lived simple, reflective lives without possessions or worldly encumbrances. In Sacchi’s painting they share the same pictorial space but are unaware of each other, lost in their own separate devotional worlds.
Given these similarities and contrasts, and since both pictures are almost exactly the same size and seem to have been made at around the same date, it has been suggested that they were painted as companion pieces. Perhaps there is some religious significance to the pairings, or maybe they were commissioned as a way of pitting Bernini and Sacchi against one another in order to generate an artistic debate. It is also possible that the pictures were not simply a pendant pair, but part of an unfinished, or lost, series of saints.
At first sight, the fact that the Bernini painting was recorded in a Barberini inventory of 1627 and that payment for a Sacchi painting of ‘two heads of Apostles’ was made two weeks later by Cardinal Franceso Bernini (Maffeo’s nephew) seems to add weight to this theory. However, this painting by Sacchi doesn‘t depict two apostles, and while it’s conceivable that whoever made the 1627 record may have misidentified Saint Anthony, it’s highly unlikely that he would have failed to recognise Saint Francis, who would never have been described as an apostle. Francis was one of the most famous and revered saints, and his highly distinctive attribute – a stigmata wound – is clearly displayed in this picture. Apostles were also never depicted wearing monk’s habits, as these two saints are. It seems much more likely that the 1627 record references a different work altogether, while this painting is almost certainly the one of Saints Francis and Anthony that is recorded in an inventory of the contents of Sacchi’s house made after his death in 1661. So it seems that the Barberini family didn’t acquire Sacchi’s painting until more than 30 years after they bought Bernini’s one. In fact, the first time they are indisputably documented together is even later – in 1692, when they were both in the collection of Cardinal Carlo Barberini.
The matching size of the two paintings also seems to be misleading. Close examination has shown that the Bernini was trimmed along both vertical sides after it was finished and that Sacchi’s painting was extended slightly, So, on balance, it seems unlikely that the two paintings were originally made as a pair. It is certainly possible that one artist was influenced by the other’s work, and the similarities and contrasts between them seem to have tempted the Barberini family to adapt and hang them together at a later date.