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The Vision of Saint Anthony Abbot

The Vision of Saint Anthony Abbot
oil on canvas
44¼ x 34 7/8 in. (112.5 x 88.7 cm.)
Private collection, UK.
P. Baker-Bates, ‘Copies and Versions in Sebastiano’s Art? The Christ Carrying the Cross’ in M. Wivel (ed.), The Mirror and the Compass – Michelangelo and Sebastiano, Turnhout, forthcoming.

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Lot Essay

A masterpiece by one of the great artists of the High Renaissance, this picture is one of the most remarkable discoveries of recent times. A contemporary and rival of Raphael, and famously a close friend of Michelangelo, Sebastiano was a central figure in Rome in the early sixteenth century, celebrated in his lifetime as an extraordinary portraitist and an artist of unique innovation.

Since Michael Hirst’s monograph on the artist in 1981, two major exhibitions have been held: one, which travelled from Palazzo Venezia, Rome to the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin in 2008, surveyed his entire career, from his beginnings as the pupil of Giorgione to his rise to the unrivalled position of privilege as the keeper of the papal seal in Rome. In 2017 an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, took the relationship between Sebastiano and Michelangelo as its focus. The discovery of this picture comes at a timely moment, when studies on the artist have, in recent years, drawn out more information on his life and work and in so doing restored his reputation as a titanic figure of Renaissance art.

What little is known of Sebastiano’s early career in Venice comes from Vasari, when he is believed to have worked in the studio of Bellini and then with Giorgione. In Rome, where he lived for the rest of his life from 1511, he quickly moved to become the pre-eminent painter during one of the most fertile periods of cultural activity that the city had witnessed. He was patronised by Agostino Chigi, the Papal banker, and became the most trusted painter of Pope Clement VII, excelling as he produced religious paintings and portraits for the Roman elite. In 1531, he was given the title of piombatore, which allowed him to use the lead papal seal, or piombo, an office that confirmed his integral position in Vatican court circles; he took vows in the process as a friar for the remainder of his life, and thereafter his output diminished.

It was in Rome that he developed a close friendship with Michelangelo. The latter became a mentor and an advisor, and the two engaged in artistic exchanges that would redefine the path of Sebastiano’s career: his style was markedly influenced by Michelangelo’s use of form and sense of grandeur, so much so that the latter provided drawings for figures and compositional studies that Sebastiano would use in his finished pictures. It is, indeed, Michelangelo’s decisive influence that is evident in this picture, the Vision of Saint Anthony Abbot, which brings together a new found sense of monumentality with the colouring and sensitivity of touch of his Venetian schooling. It is a picture that shows Sebastiano at the peak of his creativity.

Even though no record of its early history has to date been found, this was evidently a significant commission, to judge by the number of early copies of that have survived. Together with the newly discovered canvas presented here, there is one other variant of the composition that is currently still considered to be an autograph work by Sebastiano, the panel held at the chapel in Musée National du Château de Compiègne (inv. 841; fig. 1), outside Paris. The latter differs in three significant respects: it is on panel, rather than canvas; it is of larger dimensions, measuring 137 x 109.5 cm.; and the inscription on the book differs markedly, in both the text itself and the
lettering, with block capitals used instead of cursive handwriting. It was accepted as an autograph picture by Hirst when he saw it in the department of restoration at the Louvre in 1977, although he sounded a note of caution in that judgement, not least for its relatively poor state. He compared it with the Visitation (fig. 2) in the Louvre, with the similarity between the foreshortened left hand of the saint and that of Saint Elisabeth in the Paris picture. The larger dimensions and panel support are not though an indication that this was a primary version of the composition; indeed, as Piers Baker-Bates has discovered, there are examples of copies being made of Sebastiano’s pictures in his lifetime (or shortly thereafter) that are of greater size than original pictures, and even on different supports.

Whilst it has not proved possible for the compiler of this entry to see the Compiègne picture first hand, nor for the two pictures themselves to be compared side by side, a highly convincing case can be made for the newly discovered canvas to be the first, and superior, picture, given its remarkably accomplished execution and the presence of decisive pentiments on the right edge of the open book and the trees upper left. The more delicate handling of the glazes, the greater subtlety in the definition of forms and the highly characterful, detailed portrait of the saint all speak strongly for its primacy. Indeed, Dr Baker-Bates, who has seen both pictures, believes this to be the case, as does Mauro Lucco, the latter judging from photographs alone (and reserving the right to confirm his view on seeing the picture in person, which has not yet proved possible). The cursive writing of the text also speaks in favour of this being the prime version: the font is highly analogous to Sebastiano’s own handwriting, as it appears, famously, in his letters to Michelangelo (fig. 3).

Another version in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (cat. 193; fig. 4), formerly in the John G. Johnson Collection, which is on canvas and whose script closely matches that of the picture discussed here, was for some time given to Sebastiano, the attribution initially supported by Bernard Berenson who erroneously identified the subject as the Vision of Saint Augustine. While others published the picture as by Sebastiano, Berenson would row back on the idea, and Federico Zeri determined it to be a studio work. Currently it is given tentatively to Girolamo Muziano, a prolific Mannerist artist known to have copied Sebastiano, presumably to commission, on several occasions. There also is a reduced copy, on panel, showing the upper half only, in Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe (inv. 420), and another full scale copy recently found in Spain.

It is worth pausing to draw attention to two further features of the picture under discussion. First, the splendidly executed landscape background seen through a lateral, vertical ‘window’ to the left. Highly characteristic, this type of landscape device features elsewhere in Sebastiano’s oeuvre, notably in his Portrait of Ferry Carondelet, painted circa 1510-12 (fig. 5; Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen Bornemisza). The handling and atmosphere of the two landscapes, both seen at sunset with beautifully drawn autumnal trees, is remarkably similar; it might suggest a close date of execution for the two works, or that the Saint Anthony revisits this earlier, successful compositional device at a later time. The general consensus is that the picture here likely dates to circa 1515-1520. Second, the wonderful naturalistic rendering of the head and the hands is entirely in tune with his revelatory role as a portraitist: Sebastiano played a key part in developing the genre in the early sixteenth century, and Vasari himself acknowledged that the artist possessed special talent in this regard: ‘era veramente Sebastiano nel fare i ritratti di tutta finezza e bontà a tutti gli altri superiore […] nella testa e nelle mani, nelle quali parti era Bastiano veramente eccellentissimo’ (‘Sebastiano was truly superior to all others in making the finest portraits […] the head and the hands [were] parts in which Sebastiano was most truly excellent’) (G. Vasari, Le vite de’ piu eccellenti pittori, scultori et architettori, III.I, Florence, 1568, pp. 344-345). This all points towards the special attention Sebastiano dedicated to what was a relatively unusual sacred subject, showing God the Father appearing to Saint Anthony. Born in Egypt in the third century, Saint Anthony became one of the fathers of Christian monasticism. He gave away all his worldly possessions to devote himself to a life of solitude and spiritual reflection. He lived a strict, ascetic life in a small cave in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, the setting it would seem for this picture, with the rock of the cave seen in the upper right. There he endured a series of supernatural temptations, episodes which have been more frequently represented in the visual arts.


It is remarkable that a picture of such calibre should surface with little provenance to its name, although two old collectors’ labels on the reverse of the stretcher offer tentative clues as to the picture’s history, yet to be uncovered. The labels appear to date from the nineteenth century; one bears the name Titian, presumably an erroneous attribution applied to the picture, and the other the initials ‘SP’ above the number 353. It may well be that the ‘SP’ stands for name of the artist, unless it were, by coincidence, the initials of the then owner of the work. The identity of the saint has not always been obvious, and it is possible the picture may have been identified as a different saint, as Berenson had done with the Philadelphia copy.

It may also have been, where the present canvas in concerned, that the layers of dirt, overpaint and old varnish covering the picture obscured its subject. Certainly, the ‘T’, or tau cross, which is now visible on the saint’s left shoulder and identifies him as Anthony Abbot, was hidden from view previously. The careful cleaning and restoration of the picture was revelatory, bringing back to life the picture’s vibrant colours and uncovering the exceptional brushwork beneath. The initial cleaning carried out by Hamish Dewar Ltd., and the subsequent restoration overseen by Marie Louise Sauerberg.

The circumstances of the commission of the Saint Anthony remain elusive. The existence of just such a composition by Sebastiano is confirmed however by the official act of donation to the Ambrosiana of the collection of Cardinal Federico Borromeo on 28 April 1618, where a copy is listed. Amongst the ‘copie fatte con diligenza’ is ‘Un S. Benedetto con un gran libro avanti, e che fiso riguarda il cielo, con una cornice di noce, e con profili d’oro, alto due braccia, e largo un’e mezzo. Et è copia del Muziano cavata diligentemente dall’originale di Fra Sebastiano del Piombo’ (‘A St. Benedict with a large book in front of him, looking up toward the sky, with a walnut frame with a gold border, two braccia high, and one and a half wide’) (P.M. Jones, Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan, Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 353). The picture is mentioned again in Borromeo’s Musaeum, of 1625 (F. Borromeo, Musaeum, Milan, 1625, p. 32) before leaving the Ambrosiana at an uncertain date between the taking of the inventories of 1685 and 1798. Despite the incorrect identification of the saint, it is unquestionably the same composition as the Saint Anthony. It is not known yet where Muziano would have seen the original in Rome.

Despite the lack of provenance, it is not surprising that such a picture should have found its way to the UK, especially during the nineteenth century when the reputation of Sebastiano was burgeoning, and he was recognised as one of the pillars of Renaissance Rome in the early sixteenth century. Famously, one of the first pictures to enter the National Gallery in London at its creation was Sebastiano’s monumental Raising of Lazarus (inv. NG1; fig. 6), formerly part of John Julius Angerstein’s collection in Pall Mall. Indeed, by the mid-eighteenth century, a remarkable number of pictures by him were in English collections. Those works include the Dorotea, formerly in the collection of the Dukes of Marlborough, now Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Portrait of Ferry Carondelet, formerly Dukes of Grafton, now Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; the Portrait of a Humanist, formerly Marquesses of Lansdowne, now National Gallery of Art, Washington; the Man in Armour, formerly Sebright baronets, now Wadsworth Atheneum, amongst others, some of which were confused with the work of Raphael. Arguably the most comparable discovery of a picture by Sebastiano in recent decades also happened in the UK, when the magnificent portrait on slate of Pope Clement VII (fig. 7) surfaced in a regional Sotheby’s auction in 1987, before being acquired by the Getty in 1992.

We are grateful to Nicholas Penny, Keith Christiansen, Paul Joannides, David Ekserdjian, Antonio Mazzotta, Matthias Wivel and Piers Baker-Bates who have all confirmed the attribution to Sebastiano after first-hand inspection of the picture. I am indebted to Dr Baker-Bates for sharing the manuscript of his forthcoming publication on the picture.

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