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May 05, 2023

Acquisition: Pietro Testa

Pietro Testa, "The Prophecy of Basilides"

Pietro Testa
The Prophecy of Basilides
, c. 1648/1649
pen and brown ink with wash over black chalk with traces of red chalk, on gray-green prepared paper
National Gallery of Art, Washington
William B. O'Neal Fund and Gift of Funds from Ann and Matthew Nimetz, and from Andrea Woodner

Pietro Testa (1612–1650) was a celebrated painter and etcher in Rome in the second quarter of the 17th century. The National Gallery of Art has acquired the late drawing The Prophecy of Basilides (c. 1648/1649), one of Testa’s most elaborate inventions and a unique record of his preparatory process. This drawing joins three others and 23 etchings in the National Gallery’s collection.

Based on an account in Petrarch’s On Vespasian, which is in turn based on the ancient Roman histories of Suetonius and Tacitus, The Prophecy of Basilides invokes problematic 17th-century ideas to rationalize the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Titus in 70 CE. The prophet Basilides, kneeling at an altar, divines the fate of Titus, who stands in armor while his soldiers march in the background at left. In the center of the composition, a personification of justice points to a vision of the dead Jesus Christ below God, who reaches for the brands that will set the city aflame. The image implies that the destruction of Jerusalem was deserved because—in anti-Semitic opinions of Testa’s time—the Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.

Executed in the complex pictorial technique that is characteristic of Testa’s latest compositional studies, the drawing was prepared for a fresco cycle in the church of San Martino al Monte. Testa would realize the composition only in a small painting now in the collection of the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples. The design was also translated into an etching executed after Testa’s death by his nephew, Giovanni Cesare Testa.

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