Ca. 1639. Oil on canvas, 212 x 145 cm.
Saint Sabina, the noble Roman widow, became a Christian through the influence of her maid, Saint Serapia, a native of Antioch who fled the religious persecution of Christians there. The painting presents Serapia's burial. Her body is carried by a group of matrons who place it in the tomb. Dressed in red and orange, Sabina stands out among all of them, mournfully contemplating the scene from above. Until now, there has been insufficient explanation this painting's presence among the landscapes at the Buen Retiro Palace, which presented bucolic scenes or anchorites. Still, it can easily be associated with the latter group, as both saints withdrew from the world to constitute an informal congregation. In that sense, there is a certain coincidence with the biography of Saint Paula Romana. And the proposal defended here suggests that the latter depiction may well have been a companion to this one.
The artist chose a dreamily archeological view of Mount Avetino as the supposed setting for the burial of both saints, with the Tiber River and the Coliseum in the background. Despite his precise reproduction of the architectural ruins, the artist did not attempt a topographical reconstruction, as that would have required a horizontal composition in order to shift the Tiber to the left. Instead, probably at the request of his Spanish clients, Lorrain emphasized the format's forceful verticality by placing four columns in the right side of the composition as supposed remains of the temple of Juno Regina, which had, in fact, existed on Mount Avetino, where Saint Sabine is traditionally said to have been martyred, and over which her basilica was built in the 5th century.
The doubts about this work's subject matter, which were expressed in successive royal inventories from the early 18th century onwards, indicate that this is the most problematic, and also one of the most beautiful and evocative of Lorena's early works. The representation of the life of both saints was not common in 17th century painting and Lorrain himself had never painted it before, nor did he ever do so again. This work's iconographic identification was already missing in the listing of Charles II's estate (1701), where it is described as the burial of Saint Sabina. This may have been the result of a misreading of the inscription on the cover of the tomb. The subject was finally identified by Roethlisberger.
Here, Lorrain summarizes and condenses numerous experiences present in earlier works. The architectural ruins that frame the main figures and the archeological remains in the foreground, as well as the existence of a group of figures, make it close to the View of the Trinità de' Monti in Rome (1632, London, National Gallery; Roethlisberger 1961) and Capriccio with ruins of the Roman Forum (ca. 1630-35, Springfield, Mass., Michele & Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts), whose Coliseum is taken from the same drawing as the one at the Museo del Prado.
Like Lorrain's other works in the second series for the Buen Retiro Palace, the drawing is in the Liber Veritatis (LV 48), and it has no significant modifications with respect to the painting at the Museo del Prado. An inscription explains that it was commissioned by the King of Spain.
The formidable campaign of arts acquisitions carried out by the Count-Duke of Olivares in the 1640s in order to decorate the vast spaces at Madrid's Buen Retiro Palace included a very notable number of landscapes. We cannot determine how many of these works -almost two hundred in all- were purchased in Flanders or Spain, nor which ones came from private collections or other Royal Seats, but thanks to the works at the Museo del Prado and documents found to date, we can establish with certainty that the Buen Retiro Palace was furnished with numerous landscapes painted for the occasion by artists active in Rome.
A series of at least twenty-five landscapes with anchorites and a dozen Italianate landscapes -large format works by different artists- were commissioned. Only some of those pieces have survived, and most of them are at the Museo del Prado.
Commissioned in Rome between 1633 and 1641, these landscape paintings from the Buen Retiro constituted an early anthology of this new painting from nature characterized by a new awareness of the effects of light and the atmosphere of the Roman countryside that would eventually spread through most of Europe, representing one of many aspects of classicism (Text drawn from Posada Kubissa, T.: Pintura holandesa en el Museo Nacional del Prado. Catálogo razonado, 2009, pp. 230-232; Capitelli, G. in Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: El Palacio del Rey Planeta. Felipe IV y el Buen Retiro, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2005, p. 241).