Art/ Collection/ Collection/ Art Object

The Last Communion of Saint Mary of Egypt

Marcantonio Franceschini (Italian, Bologna 1648–1729 Bologna)
Oil on copper
16 3/4 x 21 3/8 in. (42.5 x 54.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Wrightsman Fund, 1996
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 623
A fifth-century ascetic, Mary of Egypt is shown receiving her Last Communion from the hands of the priest Zosimus, following forty-seven years of isolation in the wilderness of Palestine. The picture has a pendant showing the ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalen (Molinari Pradelli collection, Bologna). It was given in 1709 to Pope Clement XI as a gift of the Senate of Bologna in anticipation of his support for the founding of an art academy in the city. Franceschini’s art strove for clarity of expression and an idealized humanity consonant with the religious and mythological stories that he depicted.
According to legend, Mary of Egypt was a prostitute in Alexandria who underwent a sudden conversion as she was about to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, supposedly in about the year 430. Withdrawing across the River Jordan, for many years she lived a solitary life of penitence in the desert. The monk and priest Zosimus encountered her there and gave her communion, after which she died.

In art, Mary of Egypt is often coupled with Mary Magdalen, the latter always appearing younger and physically more attractive. Indeed, the present picture initially had a pendant depicting The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalen (Molinari Pradelli collection, Marano di Castenaso) painted on a piece of copper the same size as this work and with figures on the same scale. Giampietro Zanotti (1739), Franceschini’s friend and biographer, reported that the two pictures were painted in 1680 and that later they were purchased by the Senate of Bologna, which presented them to Pope Clement XI. Dwight Miller (1970) was able to confirm Zanotti’s story with his discovery of the correspondence between the Bolognese Senate and its ambassador to the papal court, Count Filippo Aldovrandi. In the hope of enlisting the pope’s support for the founding of an art academy in Bologna, the Senate offered the pictures as a diplomatic gift to the pope’s two nephews, who were briefly in Bologna in the spring of 1709. The nephews refused the gift, in consideration of Clement’s efforts to avoid nepotism. But the Senate persisted and shipped the paintings to Rome, where the pope was so overcome by their beauty that he accepted the gift himself and sponsored the academy, which, in recognition of his endorsement, was named the Accademia Clementina.

The gift of the two paintings may also have led to the pope’s subsequent patronage of Franceschini. In the spring of 1711 he commissioned the artist to make thirteen large cartoons for mosaics in a chapel in Saint Peter’s. During the fifteen months Franceschini spent in Rome, the pope knighted him, and nine years later made him a member of the Militia of Saint Benedict.

[2011; adapted from Fahy 2005]
[Francesco Ruvinetti, until about 1709; sold by or through him with its pendant for 80 luigi to Senate of Bologna]; Senate of Bologna (1709; given to Clement XI); Pope Clement XI (Giovanni Francesco Albani), Rome (from 1709); private collection, Genoa (second half of the 18th century); ?Henry R. Willett, Brighton (before d. 1905); Canon Robert Wadnan, Saint Joseph's Presbytery, Bridgewater, England (until d. 1914; sale, Puttick & Simpson, London, October 16, 1914, no. 74, as Flemish School, to Grace); Lionell P. Grace, London (1914–probably until d. 1919); ?sale, Sotheby's, London, as by Albani, to Pope-Hennessy; Sir John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy, London, later New York, later Florence (by 1961–d. 1994); Michael Mallon, Florence (1994–96; sale, "The Collections of the late Sir John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy," Christie’s, New York, January 10, 1996, no. 103, for $112,500 to Agnew); [Agnew, New York, 1996; sold to MMA]
Filippo Aldrovandi. Letters to the Bolognese Senate. June 26 and 29, 1709 [Lettere dalli 8 Giugno 1709 alli 31 Luglio dello Oratore/D: Co: Philippo Aldrovando/Pietro Jacopo Martello, Segretario.Archivio dell'Ambasciata Bolognese in Roma, vol. 262, tomo 2, Archivio di Stato, Bologna, pp. 515, 518a; published in Ref. Miller 1970], acknowledges receipt of the two beautiful paintings by Franceschini [this picture and its pendant] from the Senate, noting that they had already been offered to Clement XI's nephews and refused; discusses the strategy to be used in giving them to the Pope himself.

Filippo Aldrovandi. Letter to the Bolognese Senate. July 3, 1709 [Registrum d'die 13 Februarii, 1709, adi 14 Octobris/dicti Oratore D: Co: Philippo Aldrovando/Piero Jacopo Martello, Secretario (Archivio dell'Ambasciata Bolognese in Roma, vol. 62, tomo 2, p. 522; Archivio di Stato, Bologna; published Ref. Miller 1970], communicates to the Senate the successful resolution of the project; notes that the Pope hesitated to accept the gift, wishing to avoid the appearance of self-interest, but that after seeing the paintings he was so overcome by their beauty that he relented.

Giampietro Zanotti. Storia dell'Accademia Clementina di Bologna. Bologna, 1739, vol. 1, pp. 223–24, mentions this picture and its pendant as dating from 1680, and notes that they were purchased by the Senate of Bologna as a gift to Pope Clement XI.

Marcello Oretti. Notizie de' professori del disegno, cioè pittori, scultori ed architetti bolognesi e de' forestieri di sua scuola. n.d. [2nd half 18th century], p. 551 [Biblioteca Comunale dell'Archiginnasio, Bologna, ms. B 129/VII; see Ref. Chiodini 2012], locates this painting and its pendant in the collection of a nobleman in Genoa.

Michelangelo Gualandi. "Estratti concernanti le belle arti, gli artisti della scuola bolognese toccanti la storia e gli uomini illustri nelle scienze . . ." Estratti storici artistici dall'Archivio del Reggimento . . . di Bologna e del legato diretto dall'attuale archivista Filippo Alfonso Fontana. n.d., pp. 228–29 [Biblioteca Comunale, Bologna, MS B 2382; published in Ref. Miller 1970], states that a Francesco Ruvinetti was paid 80 Luigi for the two pictures, and that they were originally offered to the Pope's nephews during their brief stay in Bologna.

Dwight Miller. "Two Early Paintings by Marcantonio Franceschini and a Gift of the Bolognese Senate to Pope Clement XI." Burlington Magazine 112 (June 1970), pp. 373–78, fig. 39, notes that this picture and its pendant were first offered by the Bolognese Senate to Clement XI's nephews, but were refused on the basis of the Pope's strict directive that no gifts were to be received by them; publishes correspondence between Aldrovandi, Bolognese Ambassador to the Papal court, and the Senate relating to their presentation to and ultimate acceptance by the Pope himself and cites other early sources; observes that "Although it is nowhere alluded to in the correspondence, it is certainly reasonable to assume that foremost among 'public affairs' which could be benefited by the Pope's favour, encouraged by the gift of the two pictures by Francheschini, was his support in the establishment of the academy in Bologna" [the Accademia Clementina, Bologna's first communally supported art academy, was established in 1709].

Anna Ottani Cavina and Renato Roli. Commentario alla 'Storia dell'Accademia Clementina' di G. P. Zanotti (1739) [Atti e memorie della Accademia Clementina di Bologna, no. 12]. Bologna, 1977, p. 66.

Renato Roli. Pittura Bolognese, 1650–1800: dal Cignani ai Gandolfi. Bologna, 1977, pp. 23, 101, 259, 261.

Donatella Biagi in La raccolta Molinari Pradelli: dipinti del Sei e Settecento. Ed. Carlo Volpe. Exh. cat., Palazzo del Podestà. Florence, 1984, p. 104, mentions it in a discussion of the pendant.

John Pope-Hennessy. Learning to Look. New York, 1991, p. 317, mentions a Franceschini [this picture] in his "drawing room".

Angelo Mazza. La collezione dei dipinti antichi della Cassa di Risparmio di Cesena. [Bologna], 1991, p. 222, under no. 36.

Sybille Ebert-Schifferer. Il gusto bolognese: Barockmalerei aus der Emilia-Romagna. Exh. cat., Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt. [Bologna], 1993, p. 122, under no. 38.

Angelo Mazza in La pittura in Emilia e in Romagna: Il Seicento. Ed. Andrea Emiliani. [Milan], 1994, vol. 1, p. 242.

Donatella Biagi in Barocco italiano: due secoli di pittura nella collezione Molinari Pradelli. Exh. cat., Palazzo Te, Mantua. Milan, 1995, p. 150, under no. 70.

The Collections of the Late Sir John Wyndham Pope-Hennessy. Christie's, New York. January 10, 1996, pp. 114–15, no. 103, ill. (color).

Olivier Bonfait. Les tableaux et les pinceaux: la naissance de l'école bolonaise (1680–1780). Rome, 2000, p. 290 n. 151.

Gemma Buonanno in Dipingere la musica: stumenti in posa nell'arte del Cinque e Seicento. Ed. Sylvia Ferino-Pagden. Exh. cat., Santa Maria della Pietà, Cremona. Milan, 2000, p. 207, under no. III.23.

Dwight C. Miller. Marcantonio Franceschini. Turin, 2001, pp. 76, 86, 221, 237, 429, 435, no. 131, fig. 131, colorpl. XII, states that the two pictures presented to the Pope by the Senate of Bologna "were purchased from their original owner".

Michelangelo L. Giumanini in Papa Albani e le arti a Urbino e a Roma, 1700–1721. Ed. Giuseppe Cucco. Exh. cat., Palazzo del Collegio, Urbino. Venice, 2001, p. 63 n. 12.

Angelo Mazza. La galleria dei dipinti antichi della Cassa di Risparmio di Cesena. Milan, 2001, p. 353, under no. 57.

Everett Fahy in The Wrightsman Pictures. Ed. Everett Fahy. New York, 2005, pp. 110–12, no. 32, ill. (color).

Laura Russo in Francesco Buranelli. Between God and Man: Angels in Italian Art. Ed. Robin C. Dietrick. Exh. cat., Mississippi Museum of Art. Jackson, Miss., 2007, p. 155.

Old Masters & 19th Century Art. Christie's, London. July 8, 2009, p. 101, under no. 248, as "Communion of the Magdalen".

Fabio Chiodini in Quadri di un'esposizione: pittura barocca nella collezione del maestro Francesco Molinari Pradelli. Ed. Angelo Mazza. Exh. cat., Palazzo Fava. Bologna, 2012, pp. 193–94, under no. 38, notes that Oretti [see Ref. n.d.], writing in the second half of the eighteenth century, locates the two pictures in the collection of a nobleman in Genoa.

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