Your Collection: The Vision of St. Dominic (c. 1640-1645) by Bernardo Cavallino


Bernardo Cavallino, The Vision of St. Dominic (c. 1640–1645), oil on canvas, 97.2 x 65.6 cm. NGC

Despite his highly original style — which blended influences from Italy and Flanders — little is actually known about Bernardo Cavallino (1616­–1656). We do know that he was born in Naples, that he probably trained there as an artist, and that he likely died there during an outbreak of the plague.

It is thought that Cavallino may have produced as many as 100 paintings during his career, although — like the works of many Old Masters — most are unsigned and only one is dated, making it difficult to understand Cavallino’s career. And with much of his work done for private collectors, few documents survive. The Gallery’s painting is not signed, but the style and quality leave no doubt that it is his work.

During his brief life, Cavallino earned a reputation for small paintings on religious or mythological themes. The theme of the National Gallery’s painting, The Vision of St. Dominic, was particularly popular during the Baroque period, and usually depicted St. Dominic — founder of the Dominican Order and patron saint of astronomers — on his knees before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. The Virgin is giving Dominic a rosary — a set of beads using during prayer — which the Dominican Order promoted. We can imagine the painting’s owner contemplating the painting, rosary in hand.

But Cavallino’s is not a conventional depiction, and its treatment down through the centuries has been anything but ordinary.

For one thing, the painting has been cut down from its original size. When first painted, it featured an elaborate floral garland around the central image. Painted by an artist in Cavallino’s studio, or an independent artist hired for the job — rather than Cavallino himself — the garland would have been quite prominent, and was painted in a very different, almost trompe-l’oeil style.

As it stands now, the garland pushes right against the edge of the canvas, and in some cases is entirely cut off. A victim of changing tastes, Cavallino’s masterpiece has suffered any number of indignities that would give a modern artist hives: it has been cropped, painted over and awkwardly framed. So much was done over the years to The Vision of St. Dominic, in fact, that National Gallery curators and conservators found it difficult to visualize what the painting originally looked like.

The central image is seen through an irregular opening, meant to suggest the visionary nature of the image, as if the clouds had parted, revealing the holy scene within. This oddly shaped opening, however — to say nothing of the garland of flowers — must have caused problems for past owners, because at some point the garland was entirely painted out, radically transforming the work.

When The Vision of St. Dominic appeared at auction in 1978, it was a bit of a mess. For one thing, some of the overpaint that hid the flowers had been removed, while some had been left as it was. The dealer who bought it quite rightly cleaned off the rest of the overpaint; he was still, however, left with a work that had been awkwardly cropped. 

When the National Gallery purchased the work in 1981, it was faced with something of a dilemma. How best to present such a work? At the time, it was decided that the best solution would be to commission a new frame that concealed the garland of flowers.

The Gallery had thus hidden all the problematic elements, making it a more conventional oval composition. Part of this was due to doubts about the flowers: were they original? Even if they were, they had certainly not been painted by Cavallino himself. There was also the fact that much of the garland had been lost when the canvas had been cut down. 

A few years ago, however, curators and conservators took another good look at the painting. Given that the flowers were original, they decided that it was wrong to hide this important element of the work’s history, and removed the frame hiding the garland. The result is a more “fragmentary” and strange image; but it is felt to be a more honest approach to a work with a difficult history — an approach that allows viewers to both appreciate the original effect, and to understand that the painting has been irreversibly changed over time.

In addition to the intervention of human hands, the painting has also suffered a bit from the depredations of time. The sky, for example, would have been a bright blue when first painted. However, Cavallino had used smalt — a notoriously unstable blue pigment made of finely ground glass. Despite colour changes, however, Cavallino’s mastery is still apparent in his use of light, treatment of drapery, and a surprisingly charged emotional scene. 

Because of the mystery surrounding Cavallino’s life, and the difficulty in tracing his works down through the years, we know little of the painting’s history before the early 20th century, when it left Italy. Purchased by an English family, it was sold by a descendant at auction in 1978, bought by a dealer, and purchased by the National Gallery in 1981.

The Vision of St. Dominic by Bernard Cavallino can be viewed alongside other 17th century works in the European Galleries, overlooking the Water Court.

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