Guercino – The Burial of St. Petronilla

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Today we are going to discover The Burial of St. Petronilla.

It’s not a super well-known painting, so don’t feel bad if you are wondering who is Petronilla and why you haven’t seen it before. However, I picked it because it’s a great Baroque work of art that is going to help us to read many others giving also an idea of how painters used to think back then and the challenges they had to face. The Burial of St Petronilla

Burial of Saint Petronilla by Guercino
ARTIST: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
NAME The Burial of St. Petronilla
LOCATION Capitoline Museums, Rome
YEAR 1623
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 720×423 cm (280× 167 in)
MATERIAL Oil on canvas

We are in Rome in 1623 and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, better known as Guercino, was asked to paint an altarpiece for one of the chapels of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. So it was a pretty good deal and that gives you an idea that Guercino was a real pro even despite his nickname.

Guercino in fact is a diminutive of the Italian noun “Guercio”, meaning “squinter”. It could sound mean, but in Italy it was common (sometimes it still is) to give nicknames based on some “imperfections”.

So Guercino was cross-eyed, but we’ll see soon his abilities.

Petronilla The Burial of St Petronilla

First of all, who was Petronilla to be depicted in such a big and important work of art? She is an early Christian Saint venerated as a virgin martyr by the Catholic Church and she is popularly believed to have been the daughter of Saint Peter.

When her tomb called Rotunda of St Petronilla was demolished during the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, her body was translated to an altar within the new church. It was the 1606 and Guercino was instructed to paint an altarpiece for the altar above her tomb.

To properly fill the space, Guercino used a smart solution: creating 2 episodes of Petronilla’s life in a single work of art. The painted narrative occurs on two tiers, Heaven and Earth.

As you can see in fact, in the lower part there is the Saint who is seen being lowered into her grave while in the upper part she in Heaven in front of Jesus.

The painting

The lower tier is clearly an earthly representation. Our eyes are caught by the two men and just after them we see Petronilla who is barely visible. Why that if she was so important? Well, there are 2 elements to consider. The first one is related to a religious message: for Christians, death is sad, but just a bridge to an eternal life. That’s why in the lower part she is barely visible and she is disappearing in the tomb while on the top we can see her in all her beauty. And the second is that, being an altarpiece, the lower part is actually at the height of our head, so perfectly visible. With the consequence that the upper part seems even more majestic.

The light is coming from the top right making the characters in the lower tier perfectly defined. And thanks to that we can read their faces. And something weird is going on: there is some sadness, but it seems mostly surprising. That’s weird right? I mean it’s a funeral and Petronilla had a lot of followers. Why Guercino painted the scene like that? The Burial of St Petronilla

The Scene

As I often say, nothing in art is casual. It was a tragic event, but for Christians death is just a bridge to the eternal life and Guercino didn’t want to depict the people desperate.

In fact, the idea we have is of a bit of confusion among them. There is a feeling of chaos and haphazard organization that Guercino painted with a high realism thanks, in particular, to a great use of chiaroscuro.

Look for example the clothing of a blue robed man that appears to flow in and out of darks and lights. The chiaroscuro with the his combination of light and shadows gives volume to the scene that seems almost vibrating. And the contrast between the blue and the warm colors help that as well.

And the combination of blue robe and red cloth is replicated also on the top. There is almost a perfect arrangement actually between the lower and upper part where we can see the blue and red of the robes and the blue of the sky replicated to create a connection between the two parts.

And that’s beautiful since the upper part is actually the opposite of the lower. It’s more static, calm and, in particular, more peaceful.

It’s a theatrical Baroque scene with the angels and clouds that create a scenography for the main scene, but it’s still calm and ethereal. Petronilla’s head is bowed before Jesus as he welcomes her. A good reminder for all the Catholics who should take her as example.

Even here chiaroscuro is evident. However, the skin tones are way less intense than below so that our eyes are caught by the warm colors of Petronilla’s garments in contrast with the blue one of Jesus.

Burial of Saint Petronilla by Guercino

The “magic” S

So the canvas can be cut exactly in 2 scenes, but how to connect them? Guercino used a smart solution that is common in art and, if you read my other posts, probably you remember other examples. It’s not immediately evident, but that’s why Guercino was a master: the use of the S.

It starts on Jesus’ head who is taller than Petronilla and then down to the lower part where, not by chance, the men are in scale. With this trick the two scenes are combined without seeing a clear cut. The consequence is that the whole canvas is perfectly balanced and we don’t perceive any discontinuity.

As I promised, this work of art is filled with details that you can actually see in many others, beside who painted them or when. So I hope you learnt something new and feel free to leave your comments. I want also to thank you who is for supporting me on Patreon because it helps a lot to keep this project alive and I am preparing more contents for you, so don’t miss them. Ciao!

The Burial of St Petronilla

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