Venice 1460 /1500 – Loreto 1556/1557
The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria
[Nozze mistico di santa Caterina d'Alessandria]
oil on canvas
189.3 (h) x 134.3 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giacamo Carrara 1796
The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is one of the best documented and most discussed of Lorenzo Lotto’s paintings from the years he spent in Bergamo, between 1513 and 1525. It was made for his patrician landlord, Nicolò di Bartolomeo Bonghi, in lieu of a year’s rent that the artist would have paid for a house and studio near the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco [Saint Michael at the White Well]. On 22 June 1523 their rental contract was dissolved and a price agreed for the painting of 60 ducats—which was more than the year’s rent, so Bonghi made up the difference. When the painting was finished Lotto left his lodgings in the old city to take up residence at Trescore, outside Bergamo, where he began his famous cycle of frescoes in the private chapel
of Count Battista Suardi.
Lotto has set the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine within a domestic interior, with the portrait of his landlord, then aged about sixty, close to the seated Virgin where Saint Joseph usually stands. To place a donor in such a position is a radical innovation. Looking directly at the spectator and holding his left hand to his heart, Bonghi gives the sign of blessing with his right hand. With Lotto’s name strategically positioned on the footstool beneath the Virgin’s feet, the piety of both the patron and the artist is attested.
Catherine was the daughter of a King of Alexandria, a learned young woman who refused to be mismatched in marriage. According to legend the Virgin appeared to Catherine in a dream and led her to the Infant Jesus who placed a ring on her finger. The ring was still there when Catherine awoke. Thus ‘betrothed’ and converted to Christianity, Catherine was subsequently martyred (about the year 310). One story tells of her body being carried by angels to Mount Sinai for burial.
Lotto was fanatical in his invention of extravagant jewellery for his saints, and the gold ring of Catherine’s marriage is one of the most beautiful imaginable. In her elaborately plaited hair she wears a coronet of gold with pearls at each point, a strand of luxuriously large pearls and a ruby brooch with yet another pearl, complemented by a pearl earring. Pearls, representing purity and chastity, were appropriate symbols for the saint. With such divine luxury for the bride of Christ, and with Lotto’s brilliant application of paint in the Virgin’s and Catherine’s abundant draperies of opulent red, blue, gold and green, the simplicity of Bonghi’s dress and phsyiognomy is an austere accent.
Behind the group, where there is now a large grey area, originally there would have been a landscape view, possibly of Mount Sinai as Carlo Ridolfi claimed, or of Calvary, or Bergamo. The landscape was cut out of the painting in 1527, supposedly by a French soldier, when it was taken from Bonghi’s house to the church of San Michele, ironically for safekeeping.
Luigi Chiodi, Lettere inedite di Lorenzo Lotto, Bergamo: Tipografia Vescovile G. Seconandi, 1968.
Lotto’s fresco masterpiece of 1523–1524 in the Oratorio Suardi, Trescore, depicts episodes in the lives of legendary female saints, Barbara, Bridgit of Ireland, Catherine of Alexandria and Clara.
In 527 the Christian emperor Justinian built a monastery for hermits on Mount Sinai, Egypt; it was named after Catherine in the eighth or ninth century.
Carlo Ridolfi, Le maraviglie dell’arte ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori veneti
e dello stato (1648), D.F. von Hadeln (ed.), vol. 1, Berlin, 1914, p. 144.
Ridolfi, p. 144.