The Art of Italy - The Baroque

St John expounding the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, c.1684-6

Carlo Maratti

Purchased by George III


Carlo Maratti was the leading exponent of classicism in late Baroque Rome. This is one of many surviving studies for his altarpiece in the Cybo chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo, painted in oils directly on to the wall of the chapel. It depicts St John the Evangelist explaining the Immaculate Conception to three Doctors of the Church, Saints Gregory, Augustine and John Chrysostom.

The Cybo chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome, was built for Cardinal Alderano Cybo (1613-1700) by the architect Carlo Fontana between 1682 and 1684, as a burial chapel for Alderano and his ancestor Cardinal Lorenzo Cybo, whose original tomb had stood on the site. The project was apparently assigned initially to the aged Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who had years earlier completed Raphael’s Chigi chapel directly across the nave of the church. When Fontana assumed the commission on Bernini’s death in 1680, he retained the sense of engagement with Raphael’s model that Bernini had presumably planned. Maratti’s altarpiece, probably begun after completion of the building work in 1684 and finished around 1686, was painted in oils directly on to the wall of the chapel, an unusual technique that emulated Sebastiano del Piombo’s Birth of the Virgin in the Chigi chapel.

The altarpiece depicts St John the Evangelist explaining the Immaculate Conception to three Doctors of the Church, Saints Gregory, Augustine and John Chrysostom. Such theological subjects were difficult to handle pictorially as there was little opportunity for narrative, and the unusually large number of surviving compositional drawings allow us to follow in detail the artist’s attempts to arrive at a design that combined spatial and iconographic clarity. The earliest studies appear to be those in Madrid and New York, in which St John stands to the right, gesturing down to the book held by St Gregory, with a rather undignified St Augustine tucked in at ground level behind the Evangelist. Maratti then brought St Augustine to kneel in the foreground, extending the rather cramped space occupied by the saints.

In the present sheet the three saints all gaze at the Evangelist, thus leaving the Virgin rather isolated in the heavens above. This was corrected in two further pen studies in Madrid and a careful red-chalk drawing at Chatsworth, in which St Gregory was moved from his central position to sit opposite St John, and St John Chrysostom looks up to the Virgin.

Another study in New York then reversed the positions of the saints (thus moving St Augustine to the right), while retaining the pose of the Virgin; this was followed by a sketch in Düsseldorf and a more careful version in the Morgan Library, which introduced the motif of the Evangelist gesturing to the Virgin, and moved St Augustine back to the lower left. The final adjustment turned St Augustine’s gaze up from his book to the Virgin, providing another link between the earth and the heavens; this is seen in a schematic chalk sketch in Madrid, which may however be a copy after the final design. St John now forms the three-way fulcrum of the composition, gesturing upwards to the Virgin, pointing across to the tight group of Sts Gregory and John Chrysostom, and with his left leg planted emphatically by the seated figure of St Augustine.

These compositional drafts were accompanied by many studies of individual poses and gestures, as Maratti sought to perfect his design. He would have been conscious both of the position of the chapel, opposite that planned by his revered Raphael, and of the fact that he would have to paint the altarpiece in situ, not in the relative comfort of his own studio.

Pen and ink over red chalk, on paper washed pink

50.3 x 29.1 cm

RL 4096

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007