The Temptation of Saint Francis by Simon Vouet Restored

1. Simon Vouet (1590-1649)
The Temptation of Saint Francis, 1624
Oil on canvas - 185 x 252 cm
Roma, Eglise San Lorenzo in Lucina
Photo : Benjamin Couilleaux

11/5/09 – Restoration – Church of San Lorenzo in Lucina – Vouet’s Italian production has been highlighted recently in more than one spot. After Nantes, Besançon is honoring him with a brilliant retrospective (see review), while a canvas by his wife, probably painted in Rome, was recently acquired by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes (see news item of 23/04/09). In Italy, one of his most important works from his period there has just been presented again at its usual location, after being restored [1]. This is The Temptation of Saint Francis (ill. 1), executed for the Alaleone chapel in the Roman church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, close to the Corso. The painting hangs on the left wall of the chapel where Vouet also did the vaulted ceiling and pendentifs : it forms a pair with another Vouet canvas related to the life of the poverello from Assissi, The Taking of the Habit of Saint Francis to whom the chapel was consecrated in the early 17th century [2].

The commission for San Lorenzo in Lucina, which falls chronologically between the works for San Francesco a Ripa (around 1620) and the altarpiece for Saint Peter’s (1624), is very well documented. Vouet was called for in 1623 by Paolo Alaleone de Branca, master of ceremonies for Urban VIII, the same year this Francophile pope was elected. In March of 1624, the chapel was consecrated and Vouet received his last payment for the work in August of that same year, one of the artist’s last documented activities before becoming prince of the Académie de Saint Luc in October of 1624 [3].

2. Simon Vouet (1590-1649)
The Temptation of Saint Francis, 1624 Oil on canvas - 185 x 252 cm
Roma, Eglise San Lorenzo in Lucina Photo : Benjamin Couilleaux

The restoration consisted mainly in cleaning the surface in order to make the painting more visible. The results are highly convincing thus revealing one of Vouet’s Italian masterpieces, thanks to a subtle blend of Caravaggesque “clair-obscur” and a more decorative manner derived from grand Baroque painting. This balance between the luminous elements and the accented shadows is attained by the use of the candle : this accessory, essential in the art of French luminist painters such as Trophine Bigot and Georges de La Tour, is unique, to our knowledge, in the work of Simon Vouet and is present only in this canvas from his Italian period.

Vouet’s colours, darkened for so long, have reappeared in all their splendor, notably the woman’s superb robe, with nuances and textures so rich as to evoke obvious parallels with the individual female saints represented by Vouet in his late Roman years. As for the treatment of Saint Francis’ nude body (ill. 2), the excellent quality of the shading is comparable to that of Saint Jerome and the Angel (Washington, National Gallery of Art), done several years earlier. Although we regret that The Temptation of Saint Francis could not travel to Nantes or Besançon, there is no doubt that this is a crucial work in the artist’s Italian career and forms part of his first great decorative ensemble still preserved today.

Version française

Benjamin Couilleaux, lundi 11 mai 2009


[1] The canvas was exhibited again on 22 April, during the eleventh Settimana della cultura. In fact, it is currently being displayed on an easel behind the chapel gate, for better viewing, before being replaced in its original location. The restoration, led by the Ministry of the Interior (in charge of places of worship) and the Ministry of Culture, was sponsored by the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio de Forli. Before the cleaning, the canvas had recently been presented at the exhibition Guido Cagnacci. Protagonista del Seicento tra Caravaggio e Reni (Musei San Domenico, 20 January-22 June 2008) (cat. 18, pp. 148-151, entry by Federico Giannini).

[2] Cf. the remarkable discussions on the iconography and historical background of the ensemble, by Jacques Thuillier, in the catalogue for the Vouet exhibition, Paris, 1990-1991, pp. 212-218. As he explains, The Temptation of Saint Francis is a rather vague title for this episode, taken directly from the Fioretti : Vouet is referring to the incident where a Sudanese woman tries to tempt the saint who throws himself on burning thistles to resist the temptation and remains unharmed ; the miracle results in the young woman’s conversion. While this is a rare subject in Vouet’s oeuvre, it is well known that the Caravaggisti often represented the life of Saint Francis, including Caravaggio himself who painted his ecstasy (canvas in Hartford) and the saint praying (canvas in the Palazzo Barberini). The treatment of The Temptation of Saint Francis by Vouet where he combines the dramatic character of the conversion and the rich fabrics has analogies in Martha Reproaching Mary Magdalene’s Vanity (or The Conversion of Mary Magdalene) by Caravaggio (Detroit, The Detroit Institute of Arts).

[3] For more details on the conditions of this patronage and the history of the chapel, I recommend the recent study by Eric Schleier, “Les commanditaires de Vouet à Rome”, in the catalogue for the exhibition Simon Vouet (les années italiennes 1613/1627), Nantes/Besançon, 2008-2009, pp. 72-74.

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