“To the church of Jerusalem he sent 22 paintings, each about eight palmi in height, which represent various stories of the life and Passion of Our Lord, and of the life of the Blessed Virgin” – thus Bernardo De Dominici in his Vite, providing evidence for the important commission entrusted to Francesco De Mura in about 1730. In that year, as documents tell us, the painter received 150 ducats from Father Giovanni Antonio Yepes, who was then Commissioner for the Holy Land, for the execution of an initial group of fifteen paintings for the Holy Sites in Jerusalem. By this time, the illustrious pupil of Francesco Solimena had achieved fame, not just locally but internationally, which enabled him to be awarded the kind of prestigious commission his teacher might have had. Of the original group of works cited in early sources, eight canvases have come down to us, all of which are illustrated in the present catalogue. Of these, four belong to the Marian cycle: the Annunciation, the Dream of Joseph, the Noli Me Tangere and the Coronation of the Virgin; and four to the Christological cycle: Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ and Veronica, the Raising of the Cross and the Lamentation.
For years all memory of this commission was lost, and the works were dispersed through various sites in the Holy Land: the Franciscan convent of Saint John the Baptist at Ain Karem, that of Saint Saviour in Jerusalem, that of Saint Nicodemus in Ramleh, and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. Thanks to the attentive conservation given to all of these works, it has been possible not only to recover them, but also to re-assess their location. The four canvases belonging to the Marian cycle have recently been relocated to the Basilica of Saint Catherine ad Nativitatem in Bethlehem, in Palestine, while the four canvases of the Christological cycle – three of which are making an exceptional appearance in Lugano as part of the present exhibition – will be displayed in the future Museum of the Franciscan convent adjacent to the church of Saint John the Baptist at Ain Karem, in Israel.
The qualitative level of the paintings is not the same throughout. While some reveal the explicit presence of De Mura’s hand – as in the case of the Raising of the Cross and the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, exhibited here, as well as most of the Marian episodes – others betray evidence of assistance, an entirely customary practice when an efficient workshop was involved, especially with such a substantial commission.
All the surviving canvases are basically homogeneous as far as compositional structure is concerned: forms are distributed through space with rigour and almost architectural skill, and with a sense of balanced volumes, so that they feel more sculpted than painted. The stories unfold around just a few figures, arranged on rising diagonals, and gestures are calibrated and solemn. The point of view is concentrated and essential, so that the message is conveyed to the faithful clearly and naturally. The range of colours, too, is skilfully balanced, with dominant tonalities of warm ochre and orange interacting with saturated greens and ceruleans, but also silken pinks and refined modulations of white, in a quiet harmony of colours only occasionally enlivened by blood reds.
The cycle in question belongs to the early maturity of Francesco De Mura. These are the years of the canvases he painted for the Chapel of Saint Bertario in the Abbey of Montecassino (1731-32; later destroyed), and which include an almost literal parallel for the episode of Christ and Veronica; and of his Adoration of the Magi on the inner façade of the church of Santa Maria Donnaromita (1728), later replicated in the grand commission for the apse decoration of the church of the Nunziatella in Naples (1732). In this period the painter was strongly dependent on the model of measured Classicism and rational purism advocated by Francesco Solimena, notwithstanding the fact that the great master was beginning to turn towards a neo-Baroque mode at this time. Composition and form were thus strictly tied to the earlier oeuvre of Solimena, as seen above all in the canvases painted for Santa Maria Donnalbina (c. 1699-1701) – especially as regards the Annunciation and the Dream of Joseph. Yet a first departure from his teacher can be perceived precisely in the use of a brighter, more luminous palette. De Mura’s Classicism always held onto the richness, solemnity, movement and vitality that were typical of Baroque art. What we are looking at here are Sacre Conversazioni, in which theatrical representation is removed from the stage and brought to the canvas. We should not forget that in this period there was a powerful symbiosis between painting and the art of Nativity scenes and anti-Heroic contemporary theatre, and in particular with the Arcadia of Pietro Metastasio and his canon of moderation, decorum and reserve. Thus excessive sentimentality is banished from these scenes, and space is given to contained affetti and a more intimate and suffused atmosphere. Even in the more dramatic episodes such as the Raising of the Cross or the Lamentation, tragedy and pathos remain on the surface, yielding to a gently mitigated narrative, with measured emotions communicated by ample, harmonious gestures, elegant forms and airy, billowing drapery, all married to monumental dignity. Only later, in the mid-1730s, would De Mura break with Classicism and the neo-Baroque. Thanks to his experience in Turin (1741-43) and contact with Venetian and French painters, his art became more embellished and ever more directed towards contemporary rocaille style. This was followed by a new, more studied approach to regular forms and compositions, and at that point, between 1743 and 1746, he reached the zenith of his career, before shifting to an academic Classicism that marked the 1750s and 1760s.
Of the three canvases exhibited here, the Raising of the Cross is shown to the public for the first time out of its original context; in fact until now the painting was placed on the stairway leading to the Chapel of Saint Helen within the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. In this case, the composition offers a direct reflection not only of Francesco Solimena but also of Luca Giordano, another protagonist of the Neapolitan Baroque. Giordano treated the same subject on a number of occasions, and his drawings and oil sketches of it are many and varied. It is likely, therefore, that De Mura had direct contact with one or more versions of the subject, and then painted his own version – for example, with the Raising of the Crosses, dated 1690 and now in the University Museum at Würzburg, of which a copy exists in the Museum in Dijon. An even stronger resemblance can be found in a drawing housed in the drawings cabinet of the Museo del Prado in Madrid, datable to about 1702/1704 and which can be associated with works painted after his return to Naples from Spain, in which the compositional structure follows the same strong ascending diagonal from left to right. The potent male figure lifting the cross, wrapped in dazzling vermilion drapery that makes him the visual heart of the work, also recalls the vigorous secondary figures with bare-chested, energetic and muscular bodies (often in the role of executioners or tormentors) that recur as archetypes in Luca Giordano, and later in Solimena. Even in airborne figures such as the angel dominating the scene in the Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, we can still find echoes of that ponderous, sculptural musculature in the torso and arms, and in the leg, solidly resting on the cloud – although the lightness of the elegant, golden ochre drapery and the pure white open wings return the whole to a dimension of equilibrium and measure.
Ain Karem, Museum of the Franciscan Convent of Saint John the Baptist
- B. De Dominici, Vite de’ pittori, scultori, architetti napoletani, Naples 1742-45, critical edition by, F. Sricchia Santoro e A. Zezza, Naples, 2008, p. 1337 and note 427;
- V. Rizzo, La maturità di Francesco De Mura, in ‘Napoli Nobilissima’, XIX, 1980, pp. 29-47
- V. Rizzo in Trésor du Saint-Sépulcre. Présents des cours royales européennes à Jérusalem, exh. cat. edited by B. Degout and J. Charles-Gaffiot, Château de Versailles and Maison de Chateaubriand (Châtenay-Malabry), 16 April - 14 July 2013, pp. 164-169, n. 26;