This monumental, exquisitely rendered composition is among the most significant extant cartoons (full-scale drawings) by Domenichino. It was a preparatory design for the central portion of his fresco of the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, painted on the left wall of the Polet chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi, the French church of Rome.
Domenichino received the contract for the frescoes on February 16, 1612, from Pierre Polet (died in Rome in 1613), a prelate from the diocese of Noyon who was dedicated to the cult of Saint Cecilia. In 1599, he had attended the exhumation of her relics from a casket underneath the high altar of her titular church at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome. According to Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, Cecilia (2nd or 3rd century A.D., Rome), a virtuous virgin matron was to be burned in a boiling bath, "but she remained in the bath as in a cool place, nor felt so much as a drop of sweat." She then suffered three decapitating blows of the sword that did not sever her head, and since a fourth blow was prohibited by Roman law, she lived on for three more days, during which she gave all her possessions to the poor. On her last day, Saint Cecilia entrusted to Pope Urban all the Christians that she had converted and beckoned him to consecrate her house as a church. Domenichino's final work alludes to this part of the story, and, here, the moribund Cecilia is seen at center, attended by a maid servant, a bearded man, and a child at right.
Domenichino holds a pivotal place in the development of Baroque Classicism in Rome, and his frescoes in the Polet chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi are amongst the principal examples of that style.
Since this is the most important Italian Baroque drawing in the United States, the following, more indepth observations may be added.
This is the only large cartoon (full-scale drawing) for a major work by an important Renaissance or Baroque artist in this country. Two cartoon fragments by Domenichino, for the left and right sides of the composition of the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, are preserved in the Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphiques inv. nos. 9080 and 9081 (Paris). They too have pricked outlines for the transfer of the design and are drawn in a similar technique and medium on a surface comprised of multiple sheets of paper joined together. The drawing surface of the Metropolitan Museum's cartoon is comprised of fourteen large sheets of paper, which was originally of a blue-gray hue like many other drawings of this time. As is typical of Renaissance and Baroque artistic practice, the sheets of paper of the cartoon were glued together (probably with flour paste), with overlapping seams. This was done in the artist's studio, by the artist himself or by a studio assistant. Domenichino's cartoon is drawn very carefully in charcoal with white chalk hightlighting, but the handling is very broad in many passages and many pentimenti are evident. The strokes of charcoal in important passages of the design are rubbed together to create effects of sfumato, but many other passages of parallel hatching and outlines were left untouched by the artist. The technique of drawing cartoons is often very bold, because such drawings are meant to be seen from a far viewing distance. The outlines of the cartoon were pricked for the transfer of the design, but in this case this was probably to transfer the design to a "substitute cartoon," which was the object actually used on the moist fresco surface itself. This technique of the "substitute cartoon" saved the valuable carefully executed drawing from destruction in the working process. Once Domenichino's beautifully drawn cartoon served its purpose in the artist's studio, it was preserved as a collector's item: it was cut in the shape of an oval, lined with canvas, and was mounted on a stretcher like a picture for display before 1705 or 1706. The cartoon's frame dates to the eighteenth century.
Domenichino has focused attention on the drama of Saint Cecilia's suffering, her faith and her spirituality at the moment of death. Her idealized beauty, expression, and corporeal grace of pose are meant to convey the transcendental beauty of her Christian virtue. The viewer's reaction to this scene of the saint's noble suffering and unwavering faith was critically important to the artist's thinking in developing the composition. The figures at right participate as witnesses to the scene. The gestures of these secondary figures at right play out the reactions of empathy and contemplation the artist expected from the viewers seeing the composition: the devout practioners attending church.
There are slightly differing accounts on the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, who was already accepted into the hagiographic canon by the fifth century A.D. The main source on her life, Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (thirteenth century), states that she was to be burned in a boiling bath, "but she remained in the bath as in a cool place, nor felt so much as a drop of sweat." The virtuous virgin matron then suffered three decapitating blows of the sword that did not sever her head, and since a fourth blow was prohibited by law, she lived on for three more days, during which she gave all her possessions to the poor (the mainscene fresoed on the opposite wall of the Polet chapel). On her last day, Saint Cecilia entrusted to Pope Urban all the Christians that she had converted and beckoned him to consecrate her house as a church. Domenichino's composition of the saint's martyrdom includes the pope and the converts in an atemporal arrangement that also alludes to the consecration of her house. Domenichino's biographers, Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1672) and Giambattista Passeri (1772) also describe the particulars of Saint Cecilia's martyrdom.
Domenichino represented the agonizing Saint Cecilia within the imposing interior of a Roman bath (presumably the caldarium that was part of her house),where the prefect Almachius had unsuccessfully attempted to have her martyred. The contract between patron and artist governing the commission of this fresco, dated February 16,1612, mentions this setting.
In 1599, the patron commissioning the fresco, Pierre Polet had apparently attended the exhumation of the saint's relics from a casket underneath the high altar of the basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, and this event was recorded. The ceremony of recognition of the relics was officiated by the titular of the basilica, Cardinal Paolo Sfondrati, on October, 19, 1599, and was witnessed by the great debunker of saints of the Counter-Reformation movement, Cesare Baronio, who pronounced the relics authentic.
The cartoons by Domenichino for the two main frescoed scenes in the Polet chapel at San Luigi dei Francesi are also cited in the 1612 contract between the patron and the artist. According to the document, the cartoons were to be retained by the priest Don Mass. Bruni, the prior of the church of San Luigi dei Francesi. The cartoons for the sides of the fresco of the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (the fragments today in the Louvre) passed to the collection of the painter Charles Le Brun, then to the French royal collections and the Louvre.
The cartoons by Domenichino were from the beginning regarded as the key drawings for the Polet Chapel, and the central portion of the composition with the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (i.e., the work today at the Met) was probably especially prized. This may well explain why this is the only major surviving cartoon for the project which Charles Le Brun was unable to acquire when he visited Rome after Domenichino's death. It is clear from a reading of the contract of February 16, 1612, between Domenichino and his patron, that the first owner of the proposed cartoon section for the Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia must have been the priest - possibly the prior of San Luigi dei Francesi -- Don Mass. Bruni, who must have also owned the Louvre cartoon fragments for the composition, the ones which Charles Le Brun obtained during his Roman sojourn in 1642-48. The 1664 inventory of the possessions of Francesco Raspantino, Domenichino's pupil in Naples and artistic heir, lists three preparatory cartoon fragments for the Polet chapel decoration by his master: the "Marriage of Saint Cecilia to Valerian," the "Apotheosis of Saint Cecilia," and "Saint Cecilia Refusing to Sacrifice to the Idols." Curiously, none of these are for parts of the fresco decoration that were deemed significant in the 1612 contract. Finally, Charles Le Brun was apparently unable to procure the central and main portion of the composition of the "Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia," for he had it copied in full scale in a large drawing that is in the Musée du Louvre. It may (or may not) be the cartoon referred to in a Chigi inventory of 1705/6.
(Carmen C. Bambach, September 2015)