A college in Cambridge has unveiled a new reproduction of a significant painting of its patron saint.
St Catharine’s College installed the high specification replica of Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria, by the 17th century artist Artemisia Gentileschi, above the altar of her chapel. The original has belonged to the National Gallery since 2018, and this is the first time that one of the gallery’s works has been reproduced to such a degree.
The painting was completed in Florence around 1615-17 and depicts the artist Gentileschi as the 4th-century martyr Saint Catherine, holding a martyr’s palm and leaning against the broken spiked wheel that has become the symbol and the attribute of the saint in art.
St Catharine’s master Professor Sir Mark Welland said the gift was ‘particularly significant’ because Gentileschi – the most famous female artist of the era – had presented herself as the patroness of the college ‘which continues to be revered not only by scholars, but also by women and girls facing violence and persecution”.
At 17, in Rome, Gentileschi was raped by the painter Agostino Tassi. He was convicted after a lengthy trial in which she testified and suffered physical torture, an experience which critics say led Gentileschi to use Saint Catherine as a model in the self-portrait. It was one of many paintings she painted to promote herself in Florence, where she became the first female member of the city’s art academy.
Although there is no historical record of Saint Catherine, she is reputed to have been an Alexandrian noblewoman who converted to Christianity after having a vision of Mary and the Christ child. The story goes that she confronted Emperor Maxentius for his persecution of Christians and defeated fifty of his philosophers in a debate to defend her faith.
The Emperor had her tortured and ordered her executed by being broken on the wheel, but the wheel miraculously broke on contact – hence the Catherine Wheel, its symbol and the coat of arms of St Catherine’s College. She was instead beheaded and is the patroness of young women and students, as well as theologians and philosophers.
Reverend Ally Barrett, Dean of St Catharine’s Chapel, said the photo would help visitors “reflect on who we are and empathize with the persecuted”.
The reproduction was commissioned by Garrett Curran, a former member of the college, and went through six color proofs of increasing quality. The printers used a spectrophotometer, which measures the emission of photons, to determine the exact hues of the original painting.