The painting depicts Saint Basil the Great (ca. 330–379) saying mass in the presence of the Emperor Valens, a heretical Arian. Surrounded by priests, Basil receives the wine for consecration. Valens's required gifts of bread are presented by figures at the left while to the right the emperor swoons, moved by the solemnity of the mass. This is a highly finished proposal, or modello, for Subleyras's most important commission: the full-scale design for a mosaic altarpiece for Saint Peter's in Rome. The painter seems to have retained the modello for himself. The frame is original to the picture.
The Artist: Born in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard in the south of France, Subleyras studied with his father, Mathieu, and in 1717 entered the Toulouse workshop of Antoine Rivalz, for whom he acted as a principal assistant in 1722. He received his first independent commission in 1725, for canvases for the ceiling of the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs in Toulouse (now in the Musée des Augustins), and at about the same time began working as a portraitist. He moved to Paris in 1726 and won the Prix de Rome the following year with Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes). His stay at the Académie de France was extended from the autumn of 1728 until 1735, despite some opposition from the director, Nicolas Vleughels, and owing to the support and patronage of the French ambassador to Rome, the duc de Saint-Agnan, for whom he illustrated four scenes from the fables of Jean de La Fontaine (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and painted, in 1737, The Duc de Saint-Aignan Awards the Cordon Bleu of the Saint-Esprit to Prince Girolamo Vaini (Musée National de la Légion d’Honneur, Paris). Subleyras married the Roman miniaturist Maria Felice Tibaldi in 1739 and in 1740 was elected to membership in the prestigious Accademia di San Luca. Owing in part to ill health, and because he found patrons locally, he declined to return to France and refused invitations to take up positions at court in either Dresden or Madrid. He had increasing success with his portraits, the most important of which represent Frederick Christian of Saxony, son of the elector Augustus II, painted in 1739 (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), and Pope Benedict XIV, painted in 1740–41 and later given by the sitter to the Sorbonne (it is now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly). Subleyras received major commissions from religious orders, notably from the Lateran Canons, in 1737, for the enormous and well received Banquet in the House of Simon the Pharisee (Musée du Louvre, Paris) as well as for altarpieces for the churches of Rome, and for the cathedrals of Toulouse and Grasse, in 1741. A brilliant colorist and an accomplished draftsman and printmaker, Subleyras died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-nine.
The Painting: Having completed the portrait of Pope Benedict XIV in 1741, Subleyras was granted in 1743 the major papal commission for St. Peters Basilica of "Saint Basile Celebrating Mass in front of Emperor Valens." The canvas, finished in 1747, was briefly displayed in St. Peter’s in Rome in 1748.The work was translated into mosaic, and designated for display not far away from the mosaic after Poussin of The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus. In 1752 the monumental painting was moved to an altar in Santa Maria degli Angeli, where it can still be seen today.
Three works showing the full composition are usually accepted as autograph: a modello in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; another in the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg; and our picture. There are substantial differences between the Louvre modello and ours, which is closer to the altarpiece, and second in sequence, while the Hermitage painting follows ours and may have been painted by the workshop. Our picture is probably the one kept by the artist and reproduced in his painting The Atelier (now in the Akademie, Vienna). The Atelier shows the original “Marata” frame, which is still on the present work, although enlarged and transformed in the nineteenth century.
The subject is a rare one and concerns Saint Basil the Great (ca. 330–379) and his resistance to the Arian emperor Valens. Basil is shown surrounded by priests, receiving the consecrated wine from a deacon. Valens’ required gifts of bread for communion have been brought by figures at the left, while to the right the emperor swoons, moved by the solemnity of the event, which takes place in a church interior lit by a shaft of light. The scene follows quite closely Gregory of Nazianzus’s funeral oration for Saint Basil (XLIII, para. 52):
“Upon his entrance [the emperor] was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts: while Basil presided over his people, standing erect, as the Scripture says of Samuel, with body and eyes and mind undisturbed, as if nothing new had happened, but fixed upon God and the sanctuary, as if, so to say, he had been a statue, while his ministers stood around him in fear and reverence. At this sight, and it was indeed a sight unparalleled, overcome by human weakness, his eyes were affected with dimness and giddiness, his mind with dread. . . . But when he had to offer the gifts at the Table of God, which he must needs do himself, since no one would, as usual, assist him, because it was uncertain whether Basil would admit him, his feelings were revealed. For he was staggering, and had not someone in the sanctuary reached out a hand to steady his tottering steps, he would have sunk to the ground in a lamentable fall.”
[Keith Christiansen 2010; updated by Katharine Baetjer 2017]
Support and Paint Layer: Prior to acquisition, the paint film had been transferred from its original support to a new canvas and attached to a keyed stretcher that appears to date from the twentieth century. A rather broad craquelure pattern is visible across the entire surface. The texture of the scrim used in the transfer process has been pressed into the paint film.
During transfer the tacking edges at the sides were flattened out and the dimensions of the original support and composition were extended on all four sides by filling and overpainting the gap between the rather ragged edges of the original and the edges of the stretcher. The sides are extended approximately by 2.5 cm, the top by 1.5 cm, and the bottom by 5 cm. The filling and overpaint on all four edges extended rather broadly into the original in order to disguise this expansion. The original pale border of the arched top was also overpainted to enlarge the space depicted in the composition.
Despite the transfer there are relatively few losses and the majority are small and generally confined to the perimeter. However, the retouching covering them was crude and excessive. The varnish was very discolored and disrupted the tonal values of the composition, undermining the interplay of warm and silvery hues that is so vital to the creation of space, depth, and drama in the painting.
Cleaning: Cleaning confirmed the high quality of the modello. The handling of the paint is virtuoso in its facility and control, and the paint layer in general is in an excellent state of preservation. There is some slight abrasion in the dark passages, usually associated with the presence of pentimenti, where thin layers of dark paint have been brushed over lighter forms. The surface is somewhat gritty, suggesting the presence of lead soaps. The painting has a pale, terracotta-colored first ground followed by a light gray layer. This does not appear to cover the entire surface (for example it is absent from an area in the upper right where the warm pink ground can be seen showing through).
It is possible to see some of the main pentimenti in the X-radiograph. The heads of the man and the boy with the basket of loaves in the lower left were enlarged, the gesturing young cleric behind them was added at a comparatively late stage and the ecclesiastical staff on the far left was lowered from a slightly more upright position. Other changes are evident on the actual paint surface, for example Emperor Valens' proper right leg was added on top of his red cloak while the helmeted soldier's head coming in from the right was also a late addition.
[Extracted from the Condition and Treatment Report by Michael Gallagher, 2010]
Inscription: Signed and dated (lower right, on step): P. Subleyras / 1746
Pierre Subleyras, Rome (1746–d. 1749; his estate, Rome, 1749–before 1786); sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, May 8, 1891, no. 77, as a reduction, signed and dated 1746, 137 x 79 cm, of Subleyras's celebrated painting, for Fr 1,250; comtesse W. R. (until 1929; her estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, January 25, 1929, no. 23, as attributed to Subleyras, 135 x 78 cm); private collection, château de Guermantes, France (1929–2006; sale, Piasa, Paris, December 13, 2006, no. 14, as by Subleyras, for €220,000 to Kilgore); [Jack Kilgore & Co., New York, 2006–7; sold to The Met]
Paris. Musée du Luxembourg. "Subleyras, 1699–1749," February 20–April 26, 1987, no. 117 (lent by a private collection, France).
Rome. Académie de France, Villa Medici. "Subleyras, 1699–1749," May 18–July 19, 1987, no. 117.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
"Vita di Pietro Subleyras." Memorie per le belle arti 2 (February 1786), pp. 30–32, 34–35, note that the painting that Subleyras made for the Vatican was not his greatest work, as the artist was depressed and exhausted at the time; remark that the sketches for The Mass of Saint Basil have a merit and a fire that are lacking in the final work and that one of these had been but was no longer with the artist's children.
Olivier Michel and Pierre Rosenberg. Subleyras, 1699–1749. Exh. cat., Musée du Luxembourg. Paris, 1987, pp. 107, 336, 341, 343, no. 117, ill. p. 340, call this painting (private collection, France) identical to the study in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg (no. 116), and include it among ten works that closely follow the Hermitage composition, noting that the Leningrad sketch and its French version were repeated on numerous occasions; hope that juxtaposition of the two sketches in the exhibition will allow them to distinguish between preparatory studies and autograph repetitions; mention as possible sources Muziano's painting (known through Callot's engraving), a drawing of the subject by Luigi Vanvitelli (fig. 22), Domenichino's "Communion of Saint Jerome" (Vatican Museums), and the text of Oration XLIII of Gregory of Nazianzus, the Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil; wonder if this was the work kept by the children.
Philip Conisbee. "Paris, Musée du Luxembourg: Subleyras." Burlington Magazine 129 (June 1987), p. 415, comments on the many smaller repetitions of major altarpieces, especially "The Mass of St Basil" and wonders if "Subleyras—and his studio—[were] taking full advantage of what had been a vast, time-consuming and demanding task"; finds this picture very beautiful and the Leningrad example disappointing; calls the Louvre painting "the happiest, most beautiful and resolved of all the versions".
Olivier Michel inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 29, New York, 1996, p. 888.
Importants tableaux anciens. Piasa, Paris. December 13, 2006, pp. 26–27, no. 14, ill. (color), suggest it could be the sketch that appears in Subleyras's "L'atelier" (Akademie, Vienna) and was owned by his children; mention the pentimenti visible in infrared light.
Pierre Rosenberg. E-mail to Keith Christiansen. January 29, 2007, states that he knows this picture well and that it is undoubtedly autograph; wonders whether it is a modello or a riccordo and calls it beautiful but a little boring.
Stéphane Loire. E-mail to Keith Christiansen. March 14, 2007, notes that it was for many years at the château de Guermantes.
Pierre Rosenberg. "Le peintre Subleyras, pensionnaire au palais Mancini." L'Académie de France à Rome: le palais Mancini: un foyer artistique dans l'Europe des Lumières (1725–1792). Ed. Marc Bayard et al. Rennes, 2016, p. 305.