The lady in the picture is shown with the attributes of Saint Agatha, the third-century Sicilian martyr who was reported to have been tortured for rejecting the marriage proposal of the Roman governor. A dish with Agatha’s severed breasts and the pliers used to remove them are depicted on the right. However, technical examination of the painting has shown that the breasts, pliers, martyr’s palm and halo are later additions, suggesting that the work was originally a portrait, although the sitter remains unidentified.
The letter ‘F’ before the name ‘Sebastianus’ in the signature shows that this work was painted in or after the year 1531, when Sebastiano del Piombo (‘Sebastiano of the Seal’) became the bearer of the papal seal and adopted the honorific title associated with that role: frate (friar). The painting of the lady’s dress and hair are well preserved although the flesh areas are now damaged and have a greyish appearance.
The lady in this picture is shown with the attributes of Saint Agatha, the third-century Sicilian martyr who was reported to have been tortured for rejecting the marriage proposal of the Roman governor. Part of Saint Agatha’s torture was to have her breasts removed with pliers. Two severed breasts in a dish form a macabre still-life on the right of the painting. A pair of metal pliers lies on the table beside the foot of the dish.
It was common in sixteenth-century Italy for sitters to be portrayed in the guise of their namesakes or patron saints as, for example, in Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia. However, technical examination of Portrait of a Lady with the Attributes of Saint Agatha has shown that the breasts, pliers, martyr’s palm and halo in the painting are later additions. The saint’s attributes may have been added to the portrait to give the painting a new purpose once the identity of the sitter had lost importance or been forgotten.
When it was bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1831 by its owner the Reverend William Holwell Carr, the painting was said to be a portrait of the noblewoman Giulia Gonzaga (1513–1566) from the Borghese Collection in Rome. The number 160 written on the lower left portion of the painting seemed to match a picture missing from the Borghese inventory of 1693. However, there is no firm evidence either that the painting came from the Borghese Collection or that the sitter is Giulia Gonzaga. Her identity remains unknown.
The lady wears a green silk dress decorated with green velvet ribbons of a different tone, the fine painting of which can still be appreciated in the sheen on the surface of the ribbon and the way in which the texture of the velvet contrasts with that of the silk. Much of the painting of the flesh is now rubbed and damaged, giving the lady’s face a greyish tone, but the delicate curls of hair above her ear are well preserved, the individual hairs depicted with very fine brushstrokes.
The painting is signed: F.SEBASTIANV(S)/.VEN./.FACIEBAT/.ROME. The abbreviation ‘F.’ before Sebastiano’s name means that the portrait must have been painted in or after 1531, when Sebastiano del Piombo (‘Sebastiano of the Seal’) became the bearer of the papal seal and adopted the honorific title associated with that role: frate (friar). The portrait probably dates from the early 1530s.
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