Painted with a great sense of poetic mood, this rediscovered canvas displays the bravura and sensitivity that would define Guercino’s early career. Largely self-taught, and of humble origins, his early work is characterised by the keen naturalism, evocative lighting and warm palette evident in this atmospheric picture of Saint Alexius. Daniele Benati, to whom we are grateful for confirming the attribution on the basis of a photograph, dates the pictures to circa 1619, after Guercino had absorbed a variety of influences from Bologna, Ferrara and Venice, but before he was called to Rome in 1621 by Gregory XV. It was the work of Ludovico Carracci and Scarsellino that made a particular impression in this youthful phase, connections that Denis Mahon explored in detail in two articles in The Burlington Magazine in 1937, noting how Guercino explored and developed their use of light and colour to refine his own language in this first, celebrated period of his career.
During the early-seventeenth century, the cult of Alexius enjoyed particular popularity. According to Greek legend, he was born in the fifth century into a senatorial Roman family, whose wealth and standing he shunned by fleeing to Edessa, in Syria, where, disguised as a beggar, he devoted himself to serving God. His parents were noted for their almsgiving, and when Alexius returned to his native city some seventeen years later, unrecognisable from the man who had fled, his mother and father took him in, unaware of his identity, giving him shelter and food for another seventeen years. They continued to grieve for their son whom they presumed lost, and it was only on his death that Alexius left a note revealing to them his identity, and thus the extent of his spiritual devotion. The exemplary virtue of this saint’s life was celebrated in the early-seventeenth century, to such a degree that he became the subject of an opera by Stefano Landi, performed in the Teatro Barberini in 1632. He was represented in the visual arts too, notably in the Alms of Saint Alexius by Prospero Fontana in San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna, circa 1573, a work with which Guercino himself may have been familiar.