Tiepolo’s Virgin Appearing to St. Catherine… (1748)

Vision paintings are almost always self-referential because someone in the composition, usually a saint, sees an image (a mental image, perhaps) that feels strikingly real. Here, according to the title, the Virgin appears to St Catherine though the saint is in the right foreground with her back turned. The saint does, however, handle a little crucifix on a chain, one hand above the other, the right arm more extended than the left. This echoes the turned torso and arms of the Virgin above her as though St. Catherine has become the Virgin in her imagination, as devotional books of the time would have encouraged.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Giambattista Tiepolo, Virgin Appearing to St. Catherine of Siena, Rosa of Lima and Agnes of Montepulciano (1748) Gesuati, Venice

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Her pose is also reminsicent of how a painter holds a brush over a palette. A glance at how Velazquez portrayed himself in Las Meninas (far left) demonstrates demonstrates the similarity. To strengthen the association further, she was placed both in the foreground of the composition and in the lower right corner, the traditional site for a signature. In the background, she has become "her painting", The Virgin. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Velazquez in self-portrait detail from Las Meninas
Right: Detail of Tiepolo's Virgin Appearing to Saints Catherine....

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The two other saints are having "visions" as well. St. Rosa on the right holds her "painting" of the infant Christ, a symbol for how she herself has purified her own soul and been reborn as the infant Christ. Meanwhile St. Agnes' arm embraces her own "art", a Crucifix and thus a real work of art of the most iconic subject: Christ on the Cross.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of St Agnes and St Rosa in Tiepolo's Virgin Appearing to Saints Catherine...

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Between the seated Saint Catherine and her "painting", or vision if you prefer, is a large brown cloud of smoke without evidence of its origin. The smoke, though, clearly resembles the cloaked head and shoulders of someone facing into the image as the artist would have (see diagram). It is not clear whether the "nose" of this figure follows the brown contour or the more sharply defined black one beyond it. Nevertheless, the figure's scale, far larger than the "painting" of the Virgin, for instance, strengthens its reference to the artist whether it resembles him or not. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Tiepolo's Virgin Appearing to St. Catherine of Siena and....
Right: Diagram of detail

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And then, in a brilliant illusion, there is a second hidden face, appearing Janus-like behind the "head" in smoke. The "eye" is a knot near where the rope bends with a "beard", "chin" and "mouth" in the tassel below. I do not know who it resembles or what it means but it was clearly intended to suggest a "face" and one that has almost certainly never been published before.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Tiepolo's Virgin Appearing to St. Catherine of Siena and..

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Both the smoke and the curtain-pull demonstrate how artists, even on important commissions, portrayed their own visual magic in line with the canon, a canon still full of both unrecognized illusions and esoteric metaphors. Illusions are often thought to be "child's play", too silly for a serious artist, but as regular users already know that point-of-view is just seriously wrong. Visual illusions abound in art but, given the antipathy towards them, most still remain unpublished.

More Works by Tiepolo, Giambattista

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 22 Nov 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.