Florence 1585 – 1644
Saint Catherine of Alexandria
oil on canvas, 134×93 cm
This painting depicts a beautiful, young Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the 3rd century martyr, with her hands folded across her breast and face upturned toward the heavens. At her feet, a seductive passage of Caravagesque reality, a fragment of a breaking wheel and the hilt of a sword, suggestive allusions to the instruments of torture used during her martyrdom.
The canvas was painted most likely during the 1640s by one of the most important Florentine artists of the 17th century, Giovanni Bilvert. Son of a flemish goldsmith working at the Medici court, Bilvert was first apprenticed to the Sienese painter Casolani and later he moved to the school of Ludovico Cigoli. It was this latter artist that most influenced his style; a fundamentally Venetian style conjugated in tones of ‘luxurious and abundant ‘costumismo’” (Contini) that together with a theatrical and visual taste became a particular characteristic of Florentine art during those years. Beginning in 1610 we begin to see Bilvert’s first works as an independent artist with important commissions for prestigious benefactors, from important families of the Grand Duchy’s capital to the Medici Court itself. This work is comparable in many respects to several well-known examples depicting Saint Agnes, especially in the almost identical composition of the subject, the oldest of which is in the Luzzetti collection and is signed and dated 1629. The work to which our painting is most similar, however, is a matching Saint Dorothy signed and dated, as is our work, 1631 (Florence, Tornabuoni Arte). A recent article explored this pair of paintings along with their preliminary sketches, which are in the collection of the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampi of the Uffizi (see F. Berti, Bilivert ‘in piccolo’ e non solo, in “Medicea”, 12, 2012, pp. 8-21).