National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ

Dreams and Visions

Religious paintings of the early seventeenth century often focused on the visionary experiences of the saints, highlighting moments of ecstatic union with God. Such images suited the deeply spiritual and mystical religion propounded by the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation.

Saint Jerome, frequently depicted in paintings of the period, experienced several such visions. During his years as a hermit in the wilderness, he was visited by a trumpeting angel who warned him of the Last Judgment, and thus was often shown as a penitent saint. Alternatively, as one of the first Fathers of the Church, and the translator of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin, he was represented as a scholar in a study. Simon Vouet’s Saint Jerome and the Angel combines these two aspects by representing him as a bare-chested hermit seated in a scholar’s study, wearing his red cardinal’s robe. The objects on his desk -- a skull, hourglass, and candle -- are all symbols of the transience of earthly life. Jerome looks toward the angel, whose message about the Last Judgment provides another reminder of human mortality, and the role of repentance in attaining the spiritual afterlife.

In Lodovico Carracci’s Dream of Saint Catherine of Alexandria (c. 1593), Catherine is shown asleep, her elbow resting on a book inscribed in Greek, The Gospel of Christ. In the corner next to her is a fragment of her attribute, the spiked wheel on which she was tortured. According to Catherine’s legend, Christ appeared to her as she slept, accompanied by the Virgin Mary and by angels, and placed a ring of betrothal on her finger. Carracci’s representation of the mystical vision has great immediacy, the direct gaze and robust body of the Christ Child contrasting with the generalized and softened features of the sleeping saint.

Another female saint whose legend tells of visionary experiences is Saint Cecilia, who enjoyed unprecedented popularity at the beginning of the seventeenth century following the discovery, in 1599, of remains believed to be hers. In Gentileschi and Lanfranco’s Saint Cecilia and an Angel, the patron saint of music is shown playing her organ, while an attentive angel holds her music. As Cecilia concentrates intently on the keyboard, she seems unaware of the angel’s presence. According to legend an angel appeared to her prior wedding and granted her permission to remain a virgin. In this painting, however, the angel acts as a reminder of her heavenly inspiration. The closely observed expression and dress give the painting such a strong sense of realism that only the angel’s wings remove the characters from the realm of the everyday.

Brochure Images | Exhibition Information
Lost and Found | The Taking of Christ | Caravaggio and His Followers
The Counter-Reformation | The Penitent Sinner | Scenes of Martyrdom
Dreams and Visions | Secular Subjects and Sinners