The rare subject concerns Saint Basil the Great (ca. 339–379) and Emperor Valens, a heretical Arian. Surrounded by priests, Basil receives the wine for consecration from a priest. 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 work is a highly finished proposal, or modello, for Subleyras's most important commission, the design of the mosaic altarpiece for Saint Peter's in Rome. The painter retained the modello for himself. The frame is original to the picture.
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 was finished in 1747 and displayed in St. Peter’s in Rome. In 1748 the decision was made to translate the work into mosaic instead, 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 preparatory for this commission showing the full composition are usually accepted as autograph: a modello in the Musée du Louvre with the papal coat of arms, another in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and our picture. There are substantial differences between the Louvre modello and ours and there can be little doubt that our canvas, which is closer to the altarpiece, is the second in sequence, while the Hermitage painting follows ours and may have been painted by the workshop.
In the 1987 exhibition catalogue where the present picture was shown, there was confusion made between a "lost" signed version of the composition and our canvas. These two "versions" are the same work, as our sketch is signed and dated 1746. Our picture is most probably the one kept in the artist’s collection and reproduced in the painting of the artist’s studio L’atelier, now kept at the Akademie in Vienna. The Saint Basile depicted in L’atelier shows the original “Marata” frame, which is still on the present work, before it was 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):
“For he (ie., Emperor Valens) entered the Church attended by the whole of his train; it was the festival of the Epiphany, and the Church was crowded, and, by taking his place among the people, he made a profession of unity. The occurrence is not to be lightly passed over. Upon his entrance he 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. This was as yet unnoticed by most people. 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. So much for this.”
[Keith Christiansen 2010]
Prior to acquisition, it was assumed that the painting, on a medium weight, plain weave canvas, had been glue-paste lined onto a slightly finer textured canvas. However, closer inspection in the studio revealed that the paint film had in fact been transferred from its original support to a new canvas and attached to a four-window, keyed stretcher that appears to date from the twentieth century.
Paint Layer and Surface Coating:
The painting has a rather broad craquelure pattern which 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. It is not clear why the painting was expanded in this way—particularly at the bottom, possibly it was simply a matter of taste with regard to the work's scale or proportions.
Despite the transfer there are relatively few losses and the majority are small and generally confined to the perimeter. However, prior to cleaning, the retouching covering them was discolored, crude, and excessive. The varnish although possessing an even gloss was very discolored and exaggerated the weave imprint of the transfer scrim. More importantly, it also 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.
The painting retains its original eighteenth-century frame. Picture and frame are depicted in Subleyras' "The Painter's Studio" (Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Vienna).
Cleaning confirmed the high quality of this preparatory modello. The handling of the paint is virtuoso in its facility and control and, despite the radical intervention involved in the transfer, the paint layer in general is in an excellent state of preservation. Aside from actual paint loss, there is some slight abrasion in the dark passages, but this is not severe or widespread and is usually associated with the presence of pentimenti, where thin layers of dark paint have been brushed over lighter forms. It should be noted that 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 the overlying paint layers. Unfortunately, the interference caused by the transfer adhesive makes the X-radiograph difficult to accurately interpret in this respect. However, it is possible to see some of the main pentimenti. 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 whilst 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" of Subleyras's celebrated painting of 1745 [sic], signed and dated 1746, 137 x 79 cm, for Fr 1250; comtesse W. R. (until 1929; her sale, Lair Dubreuil, commissaire-priseur, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, January 25, 1929, no. 23, as attributed to Pierre Subleyras, 135 x 78 cm); private collection, France, château de Guermantes, Guermantes (1929–2006; sale, Piasa, Paris, December 13, 2006, no. 14, for €220,000 to Kilgore); [Jack Kilgore & Co., New York, 2006–7; sold to MMA]
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.
"Vita di Pietro Subleyras." Memorie per le belle arti 2 (February 1786), p. 35, note that the painting [of The Mass of Saint Basil] 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 it have a merit and a fire that are lacking in the final effort and that they had the occasion to see one of these [the present work] in the collection of the artist's children, although it is no longer with them.
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 (in a private collection, France) in every way identical to the study in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg (no. 116), and include it in a group of ten works, group B, that closely follow the Hermitage composition; in the entry for the "French" picture, however, note that "the Leningrad sketch and its French version were repeated on numerous occasions"; hope that juxtaposition of the two sketches during the exhibition will help us distinguish between the artist's preparatory studies and his autograph repetitions [but see Ref. Conisbee 1987, who notes that the two paintings were separated by a portrait, perhaps to avoid a too painful juxtaposition]; mention as sources for Subleyras's composition Muziano's original painting (known through Callot's engraving), a drawing of the subject by Luigi Vanvitelli (fig. 22), which Subleyras may have known, Domenichino's "Communion of Saint Jerome" (Vatican Museums), and also the text of Oration XLIII of Gregory of Nazianzus, the Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil; wonder if this painting was the work kept by the children of Subleyras and sold "(peu?) avant 1786" [presumably referring to Ref. Memorie 1786].
Philip Conisbee. "Paris, Musée du Luxembourg: Subleyras." Burlington Magazine 129 (June 1987), p. 415, comments on "the large number of smaller repetitions after major altarpieces, notably '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, then in a private collection, very beautiful and the Leningrad example disappointing; calls the Louvre painting "an elaboration and expansion of the altar-piece with reference back to the more complex first idea [a drawing] . . . the happiest, most beautiful and resolved of all the versions".
Andreas Schalhorn. Historienmalerei und Heiligsprechung: Pierre Subleyras (1699–1749) und das Bild für den Papst im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Munich, 2000, p. 22, eroneously identifies the picture of this subject shown in the painting of Subleyras's studio (Akademie, Vienna), as the study in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, rather than the MMA picture.
Importants tableaux anciens. Piasa, Paris. December 13, 2006, pp. 26–27, no. 14, ill. (color), call it identical to the Saint Petersburg picture and suggest it could be the sketch that appears in the artist's "L'atelier" (Akademie, Vienna) and was owned by Subleyras's children; mention the influence of Muziano's painting of the subject and of Domenichino's "Communion of Saint Jerome"; comment on the pentimenti visible in infrared light.
Pierre Rosenberg. E-mail to Keith Christiansen. January 29, 2007, notes that he knows this picture well and saw it in a château near Paris; calls it undoubtedly autograph and wonders whether it is a riccordo or a modello; describes it as beautiful but a bit boring.
Stéphane Loire. E-mail to Keith Christiansen. March 14, 2007, notes that the picture came from the chateâu de Guermantes, where it was for many years in the possession of the Hottinguer family.
Victoria K. McCarty. E-mail to Keith Christiansen. May 17, 2007, believes "there is probably a mix of Eastern Orthodox elements [in the vestments] contemporary to Subleyras' time, enhanced by some details known to him of the style and vesture of Patriarchs from the early centuries of Christianity".