Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (Italian, Venice 1696–1770 Madrid)
Oil on canvas
32 x 17 5/8 in. (81.3 x 44.8 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1937
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 622
This is a preliminary sketch for one of Tiepolo's greatest religious works, the large altarpiece in the apse of the cathedral at Este, near Padua. Commissioned in 1758 and installed on Christmas Day, 1759, the picture commemorates the plague of 1630 when the townspeople of Este prayed for the intercession of Saint Thecla. The first-century saint is shown among victims of the plague, praying to God; the town in the background is Este.
According to the apocryphal Acts of Saint Paul, Saint Thecla was converted to Christianity by Saint Paul at Iconium and martyred in Seleucia. Famed for her powers of healing, she is the patron saint of Este (thirty kilometers south of Padua) and the titular saint of its cathedral. She was the object of prayers during the plague that devastated the Veneto in 1630. On June 29, 1758—almost 130 years after the event—the commune of Este provided for an altarpiece to celebrate her as the protector of the town and to serve as a fitting decoration for its new cathedral, designed early in the century by the Venetian architect Antonio Gaspari and dedicated in 1748 by Cardinal Carlo Rezzonico, bishop of Padua. This beautiful and deeply affective oil sketch, transported by Tiepolo to Spain and sold after his death to the Spanish painter Francisco Bayeu (Goya's brother-in-law), is the modello for the altarpiece. It shows Saint Thecla praying to God for deliverance from the plague, personified by a female figure expulsed by angels in a darkened sky that contrasts with the sunlit, topographical view of Este in the background. The altarpiece, which was installed in the cathedral in the artist's presence on Christmas Eve 1759, is among the largest canvases painted by Tiepolo—it measures 675 by 390 centimeters—and can on a number of counts be considered his religious masterpiece. It is marked by a gravity and descriptive restraint that could scarcely be anticipated from the evidence of Tiepolo's earlier work: there is nothing of the demonstrative emotionalism of, for example, the S. Alvise Way to Calvary of two decades earlier or the dramatic pathos of the more nearly contemporary Martyrdom of Saint Agatha (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Whether the qualities of the Saint Thecla can be ascribed to his awareness of the current artistic climate in Rome or, as seems more likely, to renewed contact with his friend and admirer of long standing Francesco Algarotti is difficult to say. (Algarotti, who had been abroad, was again in Venice between 1754 and 1757.) That there was a conscious effort on Tiepolo's part to move his art in a fresh direction is indicated by the differences between the modello and the finished altarpiece.

It is not only in the various motifs and gestures of the Saint Thecla compositions that Tiepolo revealed a new artistic direction. In the altarpiece Tiepolo restrained his hallmark vibrato brushwork, which plays such an important part in creating the sense of fervent urgency in the modello, emphasizing instead smooth, more polished surfaces. He enlivened the uniformly low-key color scheme with almost strident accents in the final painting—particularly in Saint Thecla's vermilion cloak, which replaces the ocher one she wears in the modello. And in place of the warm, hazy, and diffuse light of the sketch, he chose a cold, directed one that casts sharp shadows and highlights details. In no earlier commission do we encounter such a marked difference in the technical means and artistic ambition of the modello and the finished work. These features are sometimes interpreted as signaling a decline in Tiepolo's creative powers or an increased reliance on Giandomenico to carry his projects through to completion. They should, instead, alert us to his remarkable ability to respond to new cultural stimuli.

[2010; adapted from Christiansen 1996]
Francisco Bayeu (until d. 1795; posthumous inv., n.d., no. 134; sold to Chopinot); Leonardo Chopinot (from about 1795); ?Infanta Maria Amelia de Borbón, Naples and Madrid (until d. 1857); her widower, Infante Don Sebastián Gabriel de Borbón y Braganza, Madrid (until d. 1875); his son, Infante Pedro de Borbón, 1st Duque de Durcal, Paris (1875–90; his sale, American Art Galleries, New York, April 10–11, 1889, no. 60, as "Allegory of the Plague," bought in; his sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, February 3, 1890, no. 47, as "Sainte en prière, conjurant le ciel," for Fr 3,300 to Schiff); Monsieur Schiff, Paris (1890–1909 or earlier); Guillaume de Gontaut-Biron, marquis de Biron, Paris, later Geneva (until 1937; sold through Seligmann, Rey & Co. to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Tiepolo and his Contemporaries," March 14–April 24, 1938, no. 16.

Louisville. J. B. Speed Art Museum. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," December 1, 1948–January 23, 1949, no catalogue.

Madison. Memorial Union Gallery, University of Wisconsin. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," February 15–March 30, 1949, unnumbered cat.

Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," April 24–June 30, 1949, no catalogue.

Venice. Palazzo d'Italia ai Giardini and Ca' Rezzonico (Museo del Settecento Veneziano). "Mostra del Tiepolo," June 3–October 7, 1951, no. 92.

Milwaukee Auditorium. "Metropolitan Art Museum $1,000,000 Masterpiece Exhibition," March 7–14, 1953, unnumbered cat. (p. 17).

Austin, Tex. City Coliseum. "Texas Fine Arts Festival: Metropolitan Museum $1,000,000 Collection of Old Masters," April 18–26, 1953, unnum. checklist.

Venice. Palazzo Ducale. "Dal Ricci al Tiepolo," June 7–October 15, 1969, no. 180.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Masterpieces of Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 16–November 1, 1970, unnumbered cat. (p. 31).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 325.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.

Birmingham, Ala. Birmingham Museum of Art. "The Tiepolos: Painters to Princes and Prelates," January 8–February 19, 1978, no. 19.

Springfield, Mass. Museum of Fine Arts. "The Tiepolos: Painters to Princes and Prelates," March 19–May 7, 1978, no. 19.

Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth–XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA," October 2, 1989–January 31, 1990, no. 16.

Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum. "Giambattista Tiepolo: Master of the Oil Sketch," September 18–December 12, 1993, no. 45.

Venice. Ca' Rezzonico (Museo del Settecento Veneziano). "Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696–1996," September 6–December 8, 1996, no. 51.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696–1770," January 24–April 27, 1997, no. 51.

Worcester Art Museum. "Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500–1800," April 3–September 25, 2005, no. 7.

Codroipo. Villa Manin di Passariano. "Giambattista Tiepolo," December 15, 2012–April 7, 2013, no. 43.

Relación de los cuadros pertenecientes a la testamentaría de don Francisco Bayeu, vendidos a don Leonardo Chopinot. [ca. 1795], no. 134 [published in Marques del Saltillo, "Miscelanea Madrileña, Historica y Artistica," vol. 1, Madrid, 1952, p. 76], as "Item otro, representa una Santa intercediendo con Dios por la cesación de una peste, original de Tiépolo".

Henry de Chennevières. Les Tiepolo. Paris, [1898?], p. 113, as in the Schiff collection; states incorrectly that Lorenzo Tiepolo made an etching after this painting [see Notes]; suggests that the composition may have influenced Prud'hon's "Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime" (1808; Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Pompeo Molmenti. G. B. Tiepolo: la sua vita e le sue opere. Milan, [1909], p. 260, notes that the Schiff collection, including a sketch for the Este altarpiece (this work), has been sold and dispersed.

Eduard Sack. Giambattista und Domenico Tiepolo: Ihr Leben und Ihre Werke. Hamburg, 1910, vol. 1, p. 132; vol. 2, pp. 167, 216, no. 479, as in the Schiff collection, Paris; states that it was formerly in the collection of Infanta Maria Amalia and that Schiff bought it at the 1890 Durcal sale for 3,300 francs.

Pompeo Molmenti. Tiepolo: La vie et l'oeuvre du peintre. Paris, 1911, p. 199.

Max Goering. Letter. April 1938, calls it the first sketch by Tiepolo for the Este altarpiece.

Guiseppe [sic] Fiocco. "An Early Work by Giambattista Tiepolo." Art in America 26 (October 1938), p. 148, rejects the attribution to Tiepolo of the version of this composition in the Boix collection, Madrid, calling that picture "a poor, mute, and incorrect copy of the American original" [see Notes].

Hermann W. Williams Jr. "Tiepolo and His Contemporaries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 33 (March 1938), pp. 64–65.

M[ax]. Goering in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 33, Leipzig, 1939, pp. 151, 153.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, p. 285, ill.

Manlio Dazzi. "Scheda per il procuratore di G. B. Tiepolo." Arte veneta 5 (1951), p. 184.

Terisio Pignatti. Tiepolo. [Verona], 1951, p. 134, figs. 103–4 (overall and detail).

Giulio Lorenzetti in Mostra del Tiepolo. Exh. cat., Palazzo d'Italia ai Giardini and Ca' Rezzonico (Museo del Settecento Veneziano). Venice, 1951, pp. 129–30, no. 92, ill., misinterprets Ref. Fiocco 1938; suggests that the picture may include some workshop participation.

F. J. B. Watson. "Reflections on the Tiepolo Exhibition." Burlington Magazine 94 (February 1952), p. 43 n. 4, calls it "one of the highlights of the exhibition" held in Venice in 1951.

F[rancisco]. J[avier]. Sánchez Cantón. J. B. Tiepolo en España. Madrid, 1953, pp. 25–26, confuses it with the copy formerly in the Boix collection [see Notes].

Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), ill. p. 41.

Antonio Morassi. G. B. Tiepolo: His Life and Work. London, 1955, pp. 34, 151, colorpl. VIII, dates it 1758; notes the variations between the sketch and the altarpiece; attributes the Boix version to an imitator of Tiepolo.

Paul Wescher. La prima Idea: Die Entwicklung der Ölskizze von Tintoretto bis Picasso. Munich, 1960, p. 49.

Antonio Morassi. A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings of G. B. Tiepolo. London, 1962, pp. 12, 33, dates it about 1758–59.

Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño. Pintura Europea Perdida por España de Van Eyck a Tiépolo. Madrid, 1964, p. 90, no. 310, pl. 101 (detail), conflates it with the version formerly in the Boix collection.

Anna Pallucchini in L'opera completa di Giambattista Tiepolo. Milan, 1968, p. 126, no. 248a, ill. p. 126 and colorpl. LIV.

Pietro Zampetti. Dal Ricci al Tiepolo. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale. Venice, 1969, pp. 388–91, no. 180, ill. (overall and details).

J[ames]. Byam Shaw. "The Biron Collection of Eighteenth-Century Drawings in the Metropolitan Museum." Metropolitan Museum Journal 3 (1970), pp. 237–38, fig. 1, calls it "one of the most beautiful sketches ever painted".

Aldo Rizzi. Mostra del Tiepolo. Exh. cat., Villa Manin di Passariano. Vol. [1], "Dipinti."[Milan], [1971], p. 135, fig. 69.

Rodolfo Pallucchini. "Tiepolo a Passariano." Arte veneta 25 (1971), p. 336.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 196, 452, 607.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, p. 58, pl. 63.

George Knox. "Tiepolo Paintings at Birmingham (Alabama)." Burlington Magazine 120 (March 1978), p. 189.

Stefania Mason Rinaldi in Venezia e la peste, 1348/1797. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale. Venice, 1979, pp. 282–83, under no. a58, ill.

George Knox. Tiepolo, tecnica e immaginazione. Exh. cat., Palazzo Ducale. Venice, 1979, pp. 100–101.

George Knox. Giambattista and Domenico Tiepolo: A Study and Catalogue Raisonné of the Chalk Drawings. Oxford, 1980, vol. 1, p. 136, under no. D.55.

Dario Succi, ed. Da Carlevarijs ai Tiepolo: incisori veneti e friulani del Settecento. Exh. cat., Musei Provinciali, Palazzo Attems, Gorizia. Venice, 1983, p. 408, under no. 536.

Michael Levey. Giambattista Tiepolo: His Life and Art. New Haven, 1986, pp. 222, 224–25, colorpl. 196, discusses it in connection with Tiepolo's modello for his Cividale altarpiece, "The Vision of Saint Anne" (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); notes that Tiepolo develops the motif of the dead mother and living child that he had first used in his "Brazen Serpent" (Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice) of 1735.

William L. Barcham. The Religious Paintings of Giambattista Tiepolo: Piety and Tradition in Eighteenth-century Venice. Oxford, 1989, p. 228, pl. 129, discusses Tiepolo's pictorial influences, including Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving "Plague in Phrygia," Antonio Giarola's "Verona Supplicating at the Feet of the Trinity for the Virgin's Intercession in the Plague of 1630" (S. Fermo, Verona), and Ricci's "Saint Gregory the Great Interceding with the Virgin and Child Against the Plague" (S. Giustina, Padua).

William L. Barcham. Giambattista Tiepolo. New York, 1992, p. 116, pl. 36b.

Beverly Louise Brown. Giambattista Tiepolo: Master of the Oil Sketch. Exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. Milan, 1993, pp. 281–83, no. 45, ill. pp. 124 (color), 281, notes that Tiepolo must have kept this sketch and that he probably took it with him to Spain; states that Lorenzo's reverse etching of this composition is after the altarpiece, not the modello; suggests that there might be a second copy, in addition to the ex-Boix picture.

Catherine Whistler. "Fort Worth: Tiepolo Oil Sketches." Burlington Magazine 135 (December 1993), p. 859, fig. 100, states that Francisco Bayeu probably acquired this picture directly from Domenico or Lorenzo Tiepolo.

Massimo Gemin and Filippo Pedrocco. Giambattista Tiepolo: i dipinti, opera completa. Venice, 1993, p. 467, no. 486a, ill.

Rodolfo Pallucchini. La pittura nel Veneto: il Settecento. Vol. 1, Milan, 1995, p. 458.

Keith Christiansen et al. in Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696–1770. Ed. Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1996, pp. 33, 317–19, no. 51, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696–1996," Milan, 1996].

Giorgio Marini. "Novità per Lorenzo Tiepolo incisore." Giambattista Tiepolo nel terzo centenario della nascita. Ed. Lionello Puppi. Padua, 1998, vol. 1, pp. 100–101.

Filippo Pedrocco. Giambattista Tiepolo. Milan, 2002, pp. 152, 299, no. 251.a, ill.

Gauvin Alexander Bailey and Pamela M. Jones et al. in Hope and Healing: Painting in Italy in a Time of Plague, 1500–1800. Exh. cat., Worcester Art Museum. Worcester, Mass., 2005, pp. 28, 130, 145–46, 187, 190–91, no. 7, ill. (color).

Xavier F. Salomon in Giambattista Tiepolo: "il miglior pittore di Venezia". Ed. Giuseppe Bergamini et al. Exh. cat., Villa Manin di Passariano. Codroipo, 2012, pp. 246, 249, no. 43, ill. (color).

Filippo Pedrocco in Giambattista Tiepolo: "il miglior pittore di Venezia". Ed. Giuseppe Bergamini et al. Exh. cat., Villa Manin di Passariano. Codroipo, 2012, p. 31, ill. pp. 138, 140 (color, overall and detail).

Giuseppe Bergamini in Giambattista Tiepolo: "il miglior pittore di Venezia". Ed. Giuseppe Bergamini et al. Exh. cat., Villa Manin di Passariano. Codroipo, 2012, p. 247.

Old Master & British Paintings. Christie's, London. April 29, 2014, p. 50, under no. 72.

A copy after the MMA painting was formerly in the collection of Felix Boix, Madrid, and has sometimes been published mistakenly as the original sketch for the altarpiece. It was sold at Parke-Bernet, New York, January 23–24, 1947, no. 240; Sotheby's, London, October 11, 1961, no. 133; and Christie's, London, April 29, 2014, no. 72.

A drawing for the group of God the Father and angels was formerly in the collection of Prince Alexis Orloff, Paris (see Detlev von Hadeln, The Drawings of G. B. Tiepolo, 1928, vol. 2, pl. 100).

Lorenzo Tiepolo made a reverse etching after the altarpiece (reproduced in Succi 1983, pp. 408–9, no. 536).
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