Moretto da Brescia, Saint Joseph
Shutters from a Triptych
These four paintings come from a pair of shutters that were painted on both sides. The angel facing right was originally on the reverse of the shutter painted with Saint Joseph, who has a dark beard and turban and holds a book and flowering rod. The angel facing left was on the reverse of the shutter painted with Saint Jerome, who wears an abbot’s hat and reads a book. The two shutters had been divided into four paintings by the mid-nineteenth century, probably to make them easier to display as gallery pictures.
In their original form, when the shutters were closed only Saint Joseph and Saint Jerome would have been visible. When they were open, the angels would have flanked a central image, most likely showing the Virgin Mary crowned or about to be crowned in the heavens. The shutters probably date from the end of Moretto’s career and may be by his workshop.
These four paintings come from a pair of shutters that were painted on both sides. They each show a full-length figure standing on an inscribed plinth before a landscape and cloudy sky.
The angel facing right was originally on the reverse of the shutter painted with Saint Joseph, who is usually shown as an elderly man, but here he is quite young with a dark beard and a turban, holding a book and flowering rod. The rod represents the staff that broke into blossom to show that Joseph was chosen to marry the Virgin Mary, as recounted in the Golden Legend. The angel facing left was on the reverse of the shutter painted with Saint Jerome. He is shown as an elderly man with a long white beard, wearing an abbot’s hat and reading a book.
The two shutters had been divided into four paintings by the mid-nineteenth century. The softwood panels on which the pictures were painted were divided and thinned to about 0.15 cm and then glued to mahogany panels. The decision to divide the shutters may have been made to make it easier to display the paintings, to increase their market value, or in response to the condition of the wood, which may have been damaged.
In their original form, when the shutters were closed only Saint Joseph and Saint Jerome would have been visible. Both important figures, these saints appear in many Italian altarpieces of the time and their inclusion may have theological significance specific to the chapel in question. One common reason for the selection of particular saints is that they share the name of the patron or another person important to the commission. In this case Giuseppe and Gerolamo are the Italian versions of their names.
When the shutters were open, the angels would have flanked a central image. The Latin inscription which is divided between the angels translates as: ‘Hail Queen / Of the Heavens’. The central image probably showed the Virgin crowned or about to be crowned in the heavens. It is possible that Moretto was commissioned to supply shutters for an existing picture or even a relief sculpture, and that the central image was not by him.
The angels are painted with more care than the saints, which supports the theory they were on the insides of the shutters. Less attention was generally given to the outsides of shutters, which wouldn‘t have been seen when the altarpiece was in use. The poorer condition of the saints also suggests that they were originally on the outside and therefore more susceptible to damage. Saint Jerome is particularly damaged, with many losses of the original paint which have been disguised by careful conservation.
The angels have features and expressions frequently found in Moretto’s work. The style of lettering and the pattern of vine leaves in the inscription are identical to examples found in other paintings by him. The flickering threads of golden yellow in the angels’ orange tunics resemble the gold on the Virgin’s cloak in Moretto’s Adoration of the Shepherds (Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia). However, these connections do not prove that the paintings are by Moretto. They probably date from the end of Moretto’s career and may be by his workshop.
For many decades the National Gallery believed that they might be by Moretto’s pupil Moroni because of the cool range of colours used – but the colours are also characteristic of Moretto, so there is no good reason to suppose that this is the case.