EXHIBITED FOR THE FIRST TIME in Naples in 2001, this pairof paintings were described by Nicola Spinosa as 'le sole repliche sicuramente di mano del Giordano delle distrutte tele dell'Annunziata' (op. cit.). The decoration of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in Naples, commonly known as the Annunziata, was executed in 1687, but destroyed along with most of the church by a fierce fire in 1757. The church was part of a monumental complex that also included a hospital, a convent and an orphanage. (The location of the 'wheel' where mothers could abandon their offspring -- because of their illegitimate birth or simply out of poverty -- still exists.) After the fire, the church was rebuilt and enlarged under the supervision of Luigi Vanvitelli, and completed by his son Carlo. It is fortunate that the lost paintings were very thoroughly described by the 'Neapolitan Vasari', Bernardo de Dominici, who judged these Old Testament scenes 'bellissime'.
The scenes of The Song of Miriam and The Departure of Rebecca from the original decorative scheme must have been particularly highly admired, as the numerous copies and versions attest. The present pictures are considered closest to those made for the Annunziata, both chronologically and compositionally. Giuseppe Scavizzi (op. cit.) proposes a date for this pair very near 1687, noting the close stylistic proximity to Giordano's Florentine period, recalling the exuberance of his decoration painted for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Spinosa, writing in the exhibition catalogue (op. cit.), suggested a similar date, not excluding the possibility that they could also have been painted later, circa 1700.
Another version of the two compositions, which is more simplified, smaller (59 x 84 cm.) and on copper, is also considered autograph (formerly in the Alcázar, now in the Prado, Madrid; inventory nos. 157 and 159), and before the rediscovery of the present canvases was regarded as the closest testimony of the composition of the lost decoration of the Annunziata (O. Ferrari and G. Scavizzi, Luca Giordano: L'opera Completa, I, Naples, 1992, p. 320, A424). These were also exhibited in 2001-2002 (op. cit., p. 300, nos. 97c and 97d) alongside the present pair.
Other paintings testify to the success of Giordano's inventions, among them two versions of a later date of The Departure of Rebecca respectively in the Pinacoteca Provinciale in Bari and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. A version, also later, of The Song of Miriam is in the Bob Jones University, Greenville, and has variously been considered as either a modello for the Annunziata, a preparatory sketch for the frescoes in the Escorial, or an autograph replica painted after the artist's years in Spain (Ferrari and Scavizzi, op. cit., 1992, p. 359, no. A719). Studio versions of lesser quality have appeared on the market, and other paintings of the same subjects are listed in old inventories and are now considered lost. Possibly of similar composition were the frescoes in the church of Nuestra Señora de Atocha in Madrid, destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century, but described by Don Acislo Antonio y Velasco Palomino in his turn, the 'Vasari of Spain', 'con diferentes figuras y bestia de carga; todo ejecutado con singular acierto, y proprietad' (quoted in Ferrari and Scavizzi, op. cit., 1992, p. 359, no. B22).
The Song of Miriam illustrates the moment in which the prophetess and sister of Moses raises a paean after the drowning of the Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea: 'Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea' (Exodus 15:20-21). The Departure of Rebecca portrays the sister of Laban leaving her family to join Abraham's son Isaac, whom she will marry. Both of these Old Testament subjects provided Giordano with a pretext to produce 'una versione barocca di composizioni bassanesche', rich with anecdotes and filled with figures and animals (Ferrari and Scavizzi, op. cit., I, 1992, p. 107).
Over the course of his long career, Giordano absorbed and reworked the influences of the important painters he admired from his early travels: Ribera and Rubens, Pietro da Cortona, Titian, Veronese and others. Much like the Carracci before him, Giordano adapted his style to suit the subject matter and the requirements of the commission.
Nicknamed Fa Presto ('does it quickly'), Giordano ran a large and highly productive workshop, responding to a prodigious demand for his work. The master invented sophisticated compositions and executed them in his customary rapid and exuberant style; alongside this numerous assistants reworked, developed and replicated his ideas and designs. The number of painters active in his bottega varied on the basis of the commissions he had to fulfill. It was nevertheless always very crowded, 'dappoiché furono essi infiniti' (De Dominici, as quoted in Ferrari and Scavizzi, op. cit., I, 1992, p. 187), yet none of his pupils could quite match his technical and creative genius. Not only did Giordano assist his pupils when they were painting versions and copies, he would also at times allow pictures of lesser quality to leave his workshop as autograph if the patron was willing to accept them. The complex practices of Giordano's studio can make it difficult to establish the extent of studio participation in some cases. However, the high level of finish in the present pictures would indicate that the master's involvement in them was substantial.