Saint Agatha, ca. 1640
Oil on canvas.
Agatha was an early Christian martyr, whose fate is made vividly here. The vividness owes not only to the cruel evidence of her torture: the picture’s scale, sharp illumination, and alluring psychology, make the subject intensely present and engaging. Routine in portrayals of this kind, Agatha’s attributes and apparently unharmed physical condition here seem inconsistent and disturbing. The painting’s lovely design, rare hues and transparent layering of pigment in the draperies stand in further ironic contrast to the ostensible project.
Half-length female figures of devotional or allegorical subject by incorporating such prurience were popular in mid-seventeenth-century Florence, partly as a conservative response to the extroverted, fully Baroque decoration of Pietro da Cortona in the Palazzo Pitti. Lippi cultivated his own idiom by returning to the precise description and sterling character of Santi di Tito’s paintings. Previously attributed to Orazio Riminaldi, an earlier Caravaggesque painter active in Pisa, this Saint Agatha has been described recently as “one of Lippi’s most fascinating religious personalities.”