Tintoretto, St. Catherine of Alexandria Medicated by Angels

16th century
Church of San Giovanni Eleemosynario, Venice

In the Golden Legend the queen and the military officer Porphyry visit St. Catherine in prison and are astonished to see angels salving the wounds left by her tortures. Catherine takes the occasion to speak with them through the night, and they are converted to the Christian faith. In the painting, the angel on the left prepares to place some salve on the lash marks on Catherine's leg while two other angels attend behind her. Little heeding their attentions, she turns to speak with the queen and Porphyry.

Who are the three reverent onlookers on the right? The Legend says that Porphyry's men joined him in converting to Christianity, but the three are not soldiers, nor do they even seem to belong to the time and place of Catherine's story. The man wears a shirt with a collar. It may be that they represent the donor's family or, considering the simplicity of their garments, simply the faithful of Venice.

The label in the church ascribes the painting to Tintoretto. The saint's face and hair, as well the bright light that stands in for a halo, do resemble his other Catherine images, and the angels' powerful arms and rolled-up sleeves would be consistent with Tintoretto's approach to characterization. But I have found no other source that lists this painting among his works or those of his son Domenico.

We may presume that the date of the painting is earlier or not much later than the Council of Trent's strictures against "lascivious" paintings (1563) and Molanus' specific prohibition of nudity in church art (1575).1

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Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke

1 Council of Trent, session 25, On The Invocation, Veneration, and Relics of Saints, and on Sacred Images. Molanus II, 106.