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Matyrdom of St Rufina and St Seconda
17th Century
Matyrdom of St Rufina and St Seconda
[Martirio delle Sante Rufina e Seconda ("Quadro delle tre mani")]
c 1625
Oil on canvas
192 x 192 cm  [HxW]
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

The painting shown here is commonly referred to as the Three-hand Painting as it was made simultaneously by three painters: Giulio Cesare Procaccini, from Emilia but who moved to Milan when very young, and Cerano and Morazzone from Lombardy, two of the finest painters in the Lombard school between the 16th and 17th centuries. They managed to transform this painting, refusing the rigid models of the Counter-Reformation by adopting a dynamic, expressive approach which was sometimes clearly theatrical and designed to “move the spirits of the beholders”.

Together with several public commissions as “official painters” for Cardinal Federico, the three artists worked for many collectors in the aristocratic circles of Milan in those days.

Scipione Toso, who commissioned this painting, was one of the most important. It was he who decided to bring together the painters — “tre grazie pennelleggianti”, three brush-wielding graces, as they were referred to by contemporaries — for this unusual three-hand experiment, which makes this canvas a true rarity and was most likely suggested by Girolamo Borsieri, one of the most authoritative connoisseurs of Lombard painting at the time. It was famous not only for its undoubted pictorial qualities but also for this “artificial” aspect which reflected the ideas of the time.

The painting, considering some stylistic comparisons with works of the three artists, can be dated to between 1620 and 1625. It shows the martyrdom of two saints: Rufina, who is still alive, is shown just an instant before the executioner’s sword strikes her white neck. She is comforted by an angel who, with a hand pointing up towards the sky, appears to reassure her of the reward which will soon be hers for her suffering on earth. The other saint is Seconda, who lies already decapitated.

Laura Lanzeni

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