A bearded bishop stands over a child lying in a street, his mother kneeling at his side. This is Saint Zenobius – the fourth-century bishop of Florence and one of the city’s patron saints – bringing a boy back to life.
This large altarpiece was painted for Bilivert’s great friend Giuliano Girolami, a member of a prominent banking family which claimed to be descended from Zenobius.
This particular miracle was a favourite with Florentine patrons, and had been portrayed by numerous earlier artists. Bilivert reduced the story to its essentials, representing it with the luminous colours and intense emotionalism typical of Italian Baroque painting. Faced with the threat of Protestantism, Catholic patrons and artists sought to glorify the reinvigorated Counter-Reformation Church, and to convey the miracles of its saints in the clearest possible fashion. Here the sacred is brought vividly to life – miracles can happen in the streets of Florence.
A bearded bishop, dressed in his episcopal regalia, stands over a child lying in a street in Florence. This is Saint Zenobius, fourth-century bishop of Florence and one of its patron saints, bringing a boy back to life. According to his fifteenth-century biographer, the saint had been entrusted with the care of a boy while his mother made a pilgrimage to Rome. While the saint was taking part in a procession at the church of San Pier Maggiore (visible in the background), the child was run over by a cart. The mother, returning the same day, picked up his body and ran to find Zenobius. She met the procession on the Borgo degli Albizzi, and laid down her son’s body at Zenobius’s feet, ‘full of tears, rending her garments, and tearing her hair with grief’, whereupon the saint restored him to life.
This large picture, which was clearly meant to be seen from below, must have been an important altarpiece. It was painted for Bilivert’s great friend Giuliano Girolami, along with a life-size image of Saint Charles Borromeo in prayer. The Girolami were a prominent Florentine banking and mercantile family who claimed to be related to Zenobius: the family’s coat of arms appears on the saint’s morse, or clasp. The Girolami associated themselves with the saint both through art – Botticelli’s Two Spalliera Panels were perhaps made for them – and through religious ritual. Banners decorated with their arms hung on his shrine in the cathedral on Zenobius’s feast day (25 May) and they owned what was thought to be his ring.
Bilivert was born in Florence, the son of a Dutch goldsmith employed at the Medici court. He was the most successful pupil of Lodovico Cigoli, the leading exponent of a distinctively Florentine Baroque style whose luminous colours and intense emotionalism Bilivert adopted.
This was a favourite Florentine miracle and was portrayed by numerous other artists, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Benozzo Gozzoli, Domenico Veneziano, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli.
Bilivert may have known some or all of the earlier interpretations of the miracle. Like his predecessors, he focused on the moment of highest drama, with the desperate mother at the bishop’s feet as he appeals to heaven. Bilivert’s composition reflects the new artistic priorities of the Counter-Reformation Church. Faced with the threat of Protestantism, Catholic patrons and artists sought to glorify the reinvigorated Church and to convey its dogma and the miracles of its saints in the clearest possible fashion.
Bilivert has reduced the story to its essentials. The Florentine setting is indicated by the tower and east end of San Pier Maggiore (demolished in 1784), and the great procession consists of just five onlookers. The monumental figures of the saint, mother and child fill the foreground. The success of Zenobius’s intervention is assured: the child raises his head to look up at the saint, and at the divine light appearing in the sky behind his crosier and the distant bell tower.
Characteristically, Bilivert has paid great attention to fabrics and textures. Zenobius and his deacons are superbly dressed as contemporary clerics, their robes embroidered with saints and scenes from the life of Christ. Their luxurious robes contrast with the white of their linens, Zenobius’s old age with the youth of his companions. The sacred is brought vividly to life, showing that miracles can happen in the streets of Florence.
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