Artibus et Historiae no. 61 (XXXI)2010, ISSN 0391-9064
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JÓZEF GRABSKI - The Portrait of Caterina Cornaro in Lorenzo Lotto's Adoration of the Christ Child in the National Museum in Cracow
Lorenzo Lotto's Adoration of the Christ Child of c. 1508, purchased in 1971, is part of the holdings of the Gallery of Western European Painting at the National Museum in Cracow (until recently located in the Princes Czartoryski Museum).
The theme of the "Adoration of the Christ Child", which enjoyed wide currency in Italian Renaissance painting, was given here an exceptional rendering. The central group of five figures forms a certain compositional whole, as if bound together by an imaginary circle made of the tilted heads of St Francis, the Virgin and the faces of Jesus and St John. The only figure that stands out of the sacred, self-contained tondo is St Catherine, placed at the rear, against the green drapery, on the right-hand side of the picture. Her face, with individually rendered features, differs significantly from the idealized faces of the other figures. She is not young, rather middle-aged, with rounded, full face and a clearly visible double chin. Such characteristics confirm that this face cannot be an idealized one. Here we have a quite realistic rendering of a particular middle-aged woman, whereas from the lives of saints and other literary sources we know that St Catherine was charming and beautiful, and died a martyr's death at the age of 18.
The figure of St Catherine has been masterfully integrated with the group of saints in the middle ground, yet at the same time she is distinctively separated from them, and her "otherness" is clearly underscored by the Renaissance-style dress she is wearing, which makes her belong to the real world. The "otherness" of St Catherine consists in the fact that she has the portrait features of a particular person, contemporary with the painter. The present author suggests that this person is Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, brought by Lorenzo Lotto to the unreal world of the saints adoring the Christ Child. What is more, it seems quite probable that the painting, currently in the collection of the National Museum in Cracow, had been painted on the commission of the Queen of Cyprus, perhaps in her estate in Asolo or maybe in Venice, and was supposed to serve her private devotion.
In the rich tradition of paintings depicting Caterina Cornaro, the portrait of the Queen of Cyprus as St Catherine in the Cracow painting by Lorenzo Lotto is all the more important for it had been painted by an artist who knew the Lady of Asolo personally, which can guarantee the authenticity of the model's likeness.