Saint Hippolytus gazes up at the Virgin and Child in the clouds and gestures to a distant group of buildings, probably Onzato, where this painting was originally displayed, or nearby Flero.
Saints Catherine and Hippolytus were both martyred by having their limbs broken as they refused to convert to paganism, which would have deprived them of salvation and confined them to a spiritual prison. The fractured slab of masonry with the inscription was added later to emphasise the connection between the two saints. The inscription translates as: ‘They chose to be dismembered rather than be sundered by chains everlasting.’
The painting came from the church of S. Eusebio in Onzato, a hamlet of Flero, south of Brescia. The church, which was originally part of a small convent, was ceded to Conte Tomaso Caprioli, who may have commissioned this altarpiece shortly before his death in 1538.
Sitting on a cloud, the Virgin Mary cradles the infant Christ to her cheek. Saints Hippolytus and Catherine stand in front of a grassy landscape. We see the figures from a low viewpoint, as would be expected when the painting was displayed above an altar.
Saint Hippolytus, a Roman knight, was miraculously converted to Christianity by Saint Lawrence whom he guarded in jail. He was martyred on 13 August 258 when he was torn apart by wild horses. Saint Catherine was condemned to be crushed on a wheel in the early fourth century. When the wheel miraculously broke, she was beheaded with a sword. She holds the sword in her left hand, and her left foot rests on a portion of the wheel. Saint Hippolytus gestures towards a distant group of buildings. He may be requesting special protection from the Virgin and Child for Flero or Onzato, where the painting was originally displayed. The palms that tell us the saints are martyrs and the papers that identify them may also be later additions, possibly by another artist. Their hands seem to have been planned without the palm fronds.
The two saints submitted to having their limbs broken rather than converting to paganism, which would have deprived them of salvation and confined them to a spiritual prison. The fractured slab of masonry with the inscription was an afterthought and hints of the landscape are now visible through it. It may have been added to emphasise the connection between the two martyrs. The inscription translates as: ‘They chose to be dismembered rather than be sundered by chains everlasting.’
The painting came from the church of S. Eusebio in Onzato, a hamlet of Flero, 5 kilometres south of Brescia. The church, which was originally part of a small convent, was ceded to Conte Tomaso Caprioli, who may have commissioned this altarpiece shortly before his death in 1538.
The pose of the Virgin and Child – cheek to cheek with the child held high across the Virgin’s chest – derives from a print by a local Brescian artist, Giovanni Maria da Brescia, a copy of which is now in the British Museum, London. The print copied and reversed the figures of the Virgin and Child from an engraving by Mantegna, possibly made 50 years before Moretto’s painting. Moretto’s Virgin and Child are also reversed, suggesting he followed Giovanni Maria da Brescia’s print, and not Mantegna’s original. Giovanni Maria’s print is dated 1512 and dedicated to Achille Caprioli, who was a Carmelite friar and from the Caprioli family who commissioned Moretto’s painting. It may be that the family had some special attachment to this image of the Virgin and Child.
The paint surface is severely damaged with the tops of the canvas threads exposed. The varnish has darkened and the painting is also disfigured by the darkened residue of older varnish, which creates a speckled effect in the clouds. The azurite blue of the sky may have darkened and the orange colour of the distant tree in front of the town was probably not intended.
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