Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist
Old Master Paintings
|Medium, technique||oil on copper|
45 × 39 cm
|Collection||Old Master Paintings|
|On view||This artwork isn't on view.|
The inventory of May 24, 1593 records among the effects in the storeroom of the Palazzo Vecchio (Guardaroba Medicea) three copper panels by Alessandro Allori, each measuring 3/4 by 2/3 braccia, representing the dead Christ attended by two angels. Lecchini Giovannoni (1991) associated this note with the present painting and two (unsigned) others (in the Seminario Patriarcale, Venice, and sold Sotheby’s, New York, January 22, 2004, lot 17, respectively), which are identical in size and composition. While the Medicean provenance of any of the surviving paintings can not be positively proven, the identification certainly seems very likely: not only do the measurements correspond closely (a Florentine braccio being equivalent to 58.4 cm), but stylistic characteristics also suggest a dating to the early 1590s. A reason for the rather odd fact that three, virtually identical versions of the same composition were kept in the same collection at the same time is hard to find, but the proposal of Alessandro Cecchi that they may have been intended as diplomatic gifts sounds convincing. The suggestion is supported by the fact that by 1596 only one of the coppers remained in the Medici palace.
Vilmos Tátrai has pointed out that Allori’s painting, in subject as well as composition, derives from the Byzantine type of the icon of Christ’s death, the ‘Epitaphios’, which represents the corpse of Christ laid out in readiness for the unction, with two angels performing the rites of death. In this context the mattress, upholstered in red velvet, stands for the “red stone”, that is, the holy Stone of Unction venerated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem: according to tradition, Christ’s body was anointed lying on this red marble slab. The icon of the dead Christ laid on the Stone of Unction alludes to the Eucharist, too: the transubstantiation of Christ’s flesh and blood into consecrated bread and wine over the altar. The connotation is reinforced here by the communion table in the background, with pyxes and a chalice atop.
It is very rare for a late-sixteenth-century Florentine painting to follow a Byzantine iconography. It might be related to the very close relations between the Florentine and the Spanish courts in those days. The King of Spain, being the most devoted champion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation movement, also bore the title of the king of Jerusalem, and in this role he keenly promoted a major redecoration of the chapel of the Stone of Unction. It may worth noting that Allori himself was also involved in this project, painting an image of the resurrected Christ with two angels for the chapel.
Text: © Axel Vécsey