The National Gallery, London announced the acquisition of their first painting by Artemisia Gentileschi in 2018, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. With funding from the Art Fund, the team have been able to retouch and clean the painting, restoring it to display-ready status. The self-portrait will be going on tour in the UK from March 2019. Even more exciting than this, the gallery have announced they will will host the UK’s first solo Gentileschi show in 2020 – presumably with their new acquisition in pride of place.
This particular portrait is interesting because it’s not simply a painting of the artist with an artist’s palette as we often see. She chose to represent herself in the likeness of Saint Catherine of Alexandria – a figure she’d painted on other occasions. The saint is recognisable by the icons of her story: a broken execution wheel (known as a Catherine wheel) and the martyr’s palm. In other depictions, she may also be shown with a sword, as with the Caravaggio below, to reference her eventual death by beheading.
Gentileschi often painted powerful female figures, and the story of Saint Catherine depicts a woman showing great resolve in the face of persecution. Catherine was a fourth-century princess in Egypt who converted to Christianity after a vision of the Madonna and Child. She was studious and bold, going to the emperor, Maxentius, to challenge him on his persecution of Christians. He sent pagan scholars to debate with her on the subject and they were no match – some even converted to Christianity. After trying torture and – in a strange move – proposing marriage, Maxentius was furious to be rebuffed and defeated, sentencing Catherine to death on an execution wheel. The wheel broke at her touch, and he then sentenced her to death by beheading. The crown in Gentileschi’s painting is likely a reference to the crown of everlasting glory God promised to Catherine for her bravery in the face of torture and imprisonment.
By painting herself in Saint Catherine’s likeness, Gentileschi may be highlighting her own intelligence, faith and strength of character. She was raped at age 17 by Agostino Tassi, her tutor and a painter who worked with her father. Her family pressed charges against Tassi and he was successfully convicted, but not before Gentileschi was subjected to torture to test the veracity of her testimony. Sadly, Tassi’s punishment to be banned from Rome was never enforced.
In reviewing the themes of Gentileschi’s work – particularly several paintings depicting the story of Judith and Holofernes – many scholars draw connections to the artist’s biography. In the case of this self-portrait, she has drawn an explicit line connecting herself to a woman of faith who stood firm in her convictions.
The tour of Gentileschi’s Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria begins 6 March 2019 at Glasgow Women’s Library.