Oil on canvas, 38 x 29 in. (98,5 x 75 cm)
London, private collection.
An earlier version (90x72 cm.) of the composition exists in the Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco in Milan (see Francesco Frangi, Francesco Cairo, Turin, 1998, p. 252, cat. no.44).
The recent reappearance of this Saint Christina, hitherto known in subject only from the slightly smaller painting in the Castello Sforzesco (1) is hardly surprising if we consider that the artist replicated his compositions, in this case with a certain number of variants with respect to the canvas in Milan.
The saint's pose would be identical but for a slightly less inclined head. The most significant variations appear in what is depicted around her: there is no rug on the flat surface and the background is completely different. The light background, laid on in swift brushstrokes and still imbued with the spirit of Caravaggio, has given way to darkness, with a barely visible architectural element on the right. Her white shirt, remarkable for the delicate description of the neckline, allowing for a clear sense of her breasts, and her carefully-coiffed hair adorned with a pink bow, convey a flattering, almost seductive image of the saint. She could almost be a profane character were it not for the small wound in the lower part of her neck that expresses her status as a martyr saint; and we are also reminded of this by her left hand resting on an arrow (one of her attributes), and her pointing index finger. The appearance of architecture recalls classicizing compositions in the manner of Guido Reni, an artist whom Cairo had seemingly met, and with whom he would have liked to study in order to perfect his style (2). As for the sweet, calm expression, it evokes the style of Cairo's Lombard contemporary Carlo Francesco Nuvolone (1609-1661), whose influence is clearly felt from the 1640s onward.
In this second version of the subject, Cairo appears to adopt a more simple approach, at once more pictorial in expression and swifter in handling. This represents a stylistic evolution with regard to the first version, which Francesco Frangi dates fairly early, between 1635 and 1640, since one can still associate the earlier picture with the Caravaggesque experiments of the preceding decade. Our version, on the other hand, which may be considered later for its echoes of Reni and the influence of Nuvolone, may be dated to the artist's second sojourn in Turin, between 1644 and 1648.
As has already been pointed out by Frangi before the rediscovery of our painting, aposthumous inventory of Cairo's own collection (1665) included a painting, numbered 58 and described as follows: "Santa Christina originale del Cauagl.e largo Br. 1 on. 3. alto Br. 1 on. 7"(3). These dimensions (approximately 95 x 75 cm.) are close to the picture in the Castello Sforzesco, but even closer to our version. In any case, the mention in the inventory is definite proof that the artist treated this subject; and he was to include a Saint Christina in an altarpiece painted for the Church of San Salvario in Turin, although in this instance it was within the precise context of Savoy court iconography and the figure alluded directly to Christine of France. In 1983, on the occasion of the Cairo exhibition in Varese, for which the Milanese picture had been restored, Michela Di Macco hypothesized that there might be a cult dedicated to Christine of France within the Savoy court (4).
The Lombard artists career evolved in a spectacular way: in 1633, at the age of twenty-six, he was already in Turin as court painter to Victor Amedeus the First (Vittorio Amedeo I), Duke of Savoy from 1630 to 1637, who had married Christine of France (1606-1663), daughter of Henri IV and Marie de Médicis. The Duke's death led to several years of instability due to the power struggle between the so-called Madamisti and the Principisti, during which the artist sojourned in Rome and then Lombardy before returning in 1644 to the Savoy court, now ruled by Christine, who welcomed him warmly. It was precisely between 1645 and 1646 that Cairo executed the altarpiece for the church of San Salvario. In 1648, he was once again in Milan, where he spent the last sixteen years of his life.
1- Marina Angeli, in Francesco Cairo 1607-1665, exh. cat, Musei Civici di Varese, 1 Oct.-31 Dec. 1983, pp. 146-147, No 33; Francesco Frangi, Francesco Cairo, Turin, 1998, p. 252, No 44; F. Frangi, "Francesco Cairo", in Museo d'Arte Antica del Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca, III, Milan, 1999, pp. 50-52, No 515.
2- See Frangi, 1998, pp. 79-80.
3- Inventory of 29 july 1665, Inventario de Quadri del Sig.r Cauaglier Cairo ritrouati nella sua Casa, in Francesco Cairo, 1983, as in note 1 above, p. 242, No 58.
3- Michela Di Macco, in Francesco Cairo, 1983, as in note 1 above, pp. 156-158, No 37; F. Frangi, 1998, p. 261-262, No 60.