Abbé Scaglia (1592–1641), cleric, diplomat, spy and one of Van Dyck’s most important patrons, commissioned this painting while suffering from ill health and in a reflective state of mind. It was meant for the church of the Recollect order of Augustinians in Antwerp; within a few years Scaglia would withdraw from public life and retire to their monastery.
The picture shows the Abbé kneeling before the Virgin and Child and receiving a blessing from the infant Christ, who seems to have paused momentarily from squirming playfully in his mother’s lap. The informality of Christ and the joyous colours contrast with the seriousness of Scaglia, intent on the salvation of his soul, and the calm gravity of the Virgin. Her face, double chin and all, appears to be a portrait, the most likely candidate being Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Phalsbourg, to whom Scaglia bequeathed the picture. Van Dyck has made a scene where the human and the divine interact with touching naturalness.
Cesare Alessandro Scaglia di Verrua was born in 1592 and, after entering the Church, served the House of Savoy as a diplomat. At the time this painting was made, Scaglia was largely living in the Low Countries but was in poor health, which undoubtedly directed his thoughts increasingly towards God and the state of his soul. He was drawn to the religious community of the Rýcollets, or Recollects, in Antwerp and would later retire to their monastery where he would die in 1641. This painting, which Scaglia commissioned from Van Dyck, was for their church.
The subject of the Adoration already had a long tradition in art and Van Dyck, a much travelled painter, would have seen numerous examples both in the Low Countries and in Italy, many being formal compositions in which the donor is a static bystander. Van Dyck was always concerned that his paintings – whether portraits or religious works – should have a sense of life and movement, and for Scaglia’s picture he took as his model a now lost version of the subject painted by Titian which he had sketched while in Italy. It too showed the Christ Child sitting in his mother’s lap and blessing the donor. Van Dyck had a rare gift for painting children which was to come to the fore in his portraits of the family of Charles I, and his Christ Child is very much a living and breathing infant.
At first glance it looks almost as if Scaglia is tickling the Child’s feet since the infant sprawls in his mother’s lap in a pose of playful relaxation. In fact Christ is making the sign of benediction, blessing the Abbé and so ensuring his path into heaven. Curiously perhaps, Scaglia’s gaze is not directed at the blessing hand, or even at Christ’s face, but rather towards the Virgin. She, in turn, gazes out of the painting towards the viewer, drawing us into this holy triangle and moment of religious drama. At the centre of the painting is a cluster of hands, a point at which all three figures seem on the verge of touching, that could almost be a still life.
The Virgin herself is not an idealised figure but has specific features, including a double chin, that suggests she is a portrait. Proposed models for her have included the Duchess of Aremberg; Christine of France, Duchess of Savoy; and Marie-Claire de Croÿ, Duchess of Havré. Perhaps the most likely candidate is Henrietta of Lorraine Phalsbourg, since Scaglia bequeathed the painting to her and Van Dyck painted a full-length portrait of her around the same time as this commission.
For a religious work the painting has a joyous sense of colour: Van Dyck contrasts the Abbé’s sombre clothes with the vivid blues and reds worn by the Virgin, the green of the background drapery, and the blue and white of the sky, with a yellow tint in the clouds showing the end of the day, a metaphor for the declining years of Scaglia’s life. Analysis of the colours shows that the blue contains a high percentage of lapis lazuli, a very expensive mineral pigment – testament to Scaglia’s desire that in his search for salvation his painter should spare no expense.
A more formal full-length portrait of the Abbé by Van Dyck, also in the National Gallery’s collection, was probably painted shortly before this one.
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