Saint Edward the Confessor, whom we are celebrating this week of Edwardtide is certainly not the most popular saint in iconographical terms, surely the Reformation might have something to do with this, as this great Saint buried in the Abbey at Westminster was until the 13th century the patron of England.
Oddly enough, there is one painting that portrays him, it is not the Wilton Diptych, no, it is a bit later and it is Italian! Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Caravaggio's great rival, and even more than him, the great artists that links the Renaissance and the Baroque. Carracci's work (c.1597 or 1598) is a representation of Christ in glory with Saints and the donor.
The painting was commissioned by Odoardo Farnese, a Cardinal of holy mother Church and a member of one of the princely families of Rome (though unlike some others his title was elevated in a rather peculiar way, but I will write another article about that). Cardinal Farnese appears in the artwork as the donor. During the 17th century the painting was moved to the Camaldoli Hermitage in Tuscany, and eventually in the end of the century, the Grand Duke, Ferdinando II, took it to Florence.
This is quite a unique work for the presence of the English saint, patron of the Cardinal, there is also a hidden symbolism in this work, the Cardinal being presented to Christ by the English saint would underline the claim of the Farnese family to the English throne, based on the fact that they descended from the Lancasters through Maria d'Aviz of Portugal. The presence of Saint Ermenegildo, another saint and king, also venerated by Felipe II of Spain, related to the Farnese, would also confirm his pretence over an European throne. The painting eventually ended up in the Palatine Gallery in Florence once the international aspirations of the Cardinal ended. Cardinal Odoardo was also granted the title of Protector of England and some scholars believe this painting might celebrate that. The original location is disputed nowadays, but there are two thesis regarding its first location in the Camaldoli Hermitage, the first one would be that Farnese had commissioned a chapel in the main church and this work would have been its altarpiece, another is that the Cardinal might have sent the painting away, in order to hide it, once its royal aspirations ended. In favour of the first theory, even considering Cardinal Farnese's character... it is the fact that Saint Mary Magdalene appears in the painting, after whom the Farnese Chapel was dedicated. This work is also sided by a chasuble and an altar frontal which were also in Camaldoli, but now in Florence, in the Duomo's museum. The two liturgical objects have the family coat of arms and its symbols: the fleur-de-lys and unicorns, they are also attributed to Annibale Carracci, Saint Edwad and Saint Ermenegildo are also present in these two works, an important detail that was used to identify the author. This theory, supported by the fact that the Cardinal's character would have never allowed him to forget about the English throne seems to be most plausible.
The altarpiece's upper section represents Christ in glory, sitting on clouds held by Cherubim, he stands triumphantly between Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist, both recognisable for the symbols of the keys and the eagle. The two saints are receiving the intercessions from below, and present them to the glorious God the Son, below are Saints Ermenegildo, Magdalene and Edward, the latter is in fact presenting Odoardo, in the act of praying, to the above sphere. This setting is probably inspired by that of Giulio Romano in his Deesis between the Saints Paul and Catherine in the National Gallery of Parma, also inspired by Raphael, Carracci probably saw the work in Parma. The scene is set in a pre-Baroque bucolic setting and in the background in the a game of light and shadows is the shape of the new Basilica of Saint Peter (not completed, as the lantern of the Clementine Chapel is not yet build). Interestingly, going back to the link with Saint Edward the Confessor, in the centre is someone creeping on his knees, this is a reference to one of the saint's miracles, in which Edward healed him, becoming patron of the sick.
Not only there is a strong influence from Raphael, but also another from the Parma Renaissance, especially by Correggio, this helps a lot to identify the time of execution of the painting, that last bit of 16th century in which the Roman style is still mixed with the new fashions. There is also a Classical reference in the painting, as the Magdalene reminds of the statue of Niobe, part of a group of statues, brought to Rome by the Medici. This was not the first time they inspired by them. There is an excellent preparatory drawing for this work in Lille, at the Palais des Beaux-Arts. Apparently Bernini was also inspired by this work.
On this Edwardtide it is good to be remembered of the influence of this saint, not only in England but abroad, the name of this very blogger is Edoardo, and he wishes all of you prayers from the Shrine at Westminster Abbey.