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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)
Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)

The Finding of the True Cross

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, il Guercino (Cento 1591-1666 Bologna)
The Finding of the True Cross
pen and brown ink, brown wash, the corners made up
11¼ x 8 in. (28.9 x 20.1 cm.)
Count Mestral de Saint Saphorin, his (?) mount, attribution 'Guercino' and number '12[?]'.
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 6 July 1999, lot 41, where acquired by the present owner.

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Lot Essay

A preliminary study for an important painting completed for the church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti in Venice (fig. 1). Guido Reni turned down a request from the Tasca family to paint the altarpiece (and died in 1642), and Guercino was then enlisted to execute the commission. The artist listed the painting in his Libro dei Conti as having been delivered on 5 March 1644. He received 625 Bolognese scudi, or 500 ducats for the commission.
Guercino's compositional study shows not only the discovery of the Cross, but the moment when the Cross's authenticity was proven by the dead figure who was resurrected after touching it. In the painting the resurrected figure is replaced with Saint Helen adoring the Cross. In the drawing the artist chose a more dramatic moment to depict, and the resurrection is met by the awe-struck expressions of the two onlookers, upper right. The crosses of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ are summarily drawn in the foreground with a few rapid pen strokes. The physical transformation and the emotional reactions are made even more dynamic by Guercino's energetic penmanship and boldly diagonal placement of the figures on the page.
There are several other preparatory drawings related to the altarpiece including two compositional studies at Windsor Castle, one each in pen and ink and red chalk and both with the position of the figures inverted from the present drawing (D. Mahon and N. Turner, The drawings of Guercino at Windsor Castle, Cambridge, 1989, pp. 63-4, nos. 110-11, pl. 115-16). Mahon and Turner list seven other drawings related to the painting, underlining the importance of the commission and also the process by which Guercino explored possible depictions of the subject. There is another full-length compositional drawing in the National Museum, Poznan, Poland (T. Zuchowski, Between Renaissance adn Classicism, European Master Drawings from the collection of the National Museum in Poznan, Poznan, 1995, no. 27). A drawing from the A.G.B. Russell collection is closest to the painting, with the resurrected figure eliminated and Saint Helen shown adoring the Cross rather than in prayer (A.G.B. Russell, Drawings by Guercino, London, 1923, pl. III). There are two studies of Saint Helen, one formerly in the collection of C.R. Rudolf (D.M. Stone, Guercino, Master Draftsman, Cambridge and elsewhere, 1991, no. 173, pl. D), and the other in the Fondation Custodia, Paris (J. Byam Shaw, The Italian Drawings of the Frits Lugt Collection, Paris, 1983, no. 353, pl. 393). Another compositional drawing was sold at Christie's, London, 1 December 1970, lot 168. Another drawing is known through a copy in the Brera, Milan and an off-set at Windsor.
The present sheet was probably in the collection of the Swiss-born diplomat, Count Armand-François-Louis de Mestral de Saint-Saphorin (1738-1805) who was an ambassador for Denmark to Poland, Spain, Holland, Russia and Austria. While the drawing is apparently on Saint-Saphorin's mount and with his inscription, it is not specifically listed in one of the four lots comprising 25 Guercino drawings in his posthumous sale (Vienna, 20 July 1807, lots 49a-52).

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