Martyrdom: Part 1 – The Painting

I’ve bought a picture. Starting with almost no information, I have undertaken a considerable amount of detective work to identify it, and have recorded the process in detail this three-part Random Treasure blog post. The outcome is quite interesting (at least I think so). May I invite you to accompany me on a gentle (if somewhat intensive) wander through some of the more abstruse byways of art history?

The story starts with the almost-forgotten painting reproduced in the photograph above, which is not the picture that I have bought. It was painted around 1530 by an obscure Renaissance painter called Giuliano Bugiardini. You might not have heard of him. Most people haven’t. The painting is in oil on a wood panel and hangs on the left-hand wall of the Rucellai Chapel in the magnificent church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Unlike many other artworks in the church, made by celebrated artists including Brunelleschi, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio, Giotto, Della Robbia and Botticelli, this painting by Bugiardini is largely ignored.

The subject of the painting is The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Here’s what’s going on in the busy scene.

It’s just another day in Rome. The date is November 24th or 25th, and the year is between 306 and 312 AD (or, if you prefer, CE), during the reign of the Emperor Maxentius. The town is bustling.

Portrait of Emperor Maxentius on a gold coin minted in 310 CE

Another day, another virgin martyr. Young Maxentius has come out onto the doorstep of his palace, preceded by his standard-bearer. From here, he will get the best possible close-up view of today’s entertainment: the torture and execution of the teenage princess Catherine, daughter of the governor of Alexandria. Catherine has been causing a stir by converting almost everyone she meets to a new-age woke cult known as Christianity. She has even successfully evangelised a whole bunch of hard-boiled philosophers convened by the emperor to dispute with her. And now Maxentius’s own wife Valeria Maximilla has gone and turned Christian and can talk about nothing else.

It’s very annoying. So annoying that Maxentius has had a special torture apparatus built in order to finish Catherine off in a spectacular and exemplary fashion.

Two large wooden wheels have been constructed, with viciously curved metal spikes fitted around the rims. They have been set up on a frame with a Catherine-sized space between them. She is to be placed on a block within this space, and the wheels are to be rotated against her body. In order for the mechanism to be effective, the victim will need to be firmly shackled in position. All in all, it looks as if it has potential to be an especially painful instrument of death. For the convenience of Maxentius, the whole apparatus has been built on a circular podium immediately adjacent to the entrance to the imperial palace.

The preparations are coming along nicely. A crowd gathers; the public torture and execution of Christian martyrs is one of Rome’s most popular spectator sports. From an upstairs window, Empress Valeria Maximilla looks on. She has been doing a spot of housework and has draped a rug over her windowsill to air it. Catherine the martyr is in place on her block between the wheels. A squad of torturers stands ready to rotate the wheels by turning a rather flimsy pair of handles. A smartly-turned-out platoon of seven soldiers is on guard to keep order. Mark the soldiers: they are important.

Suddenly, everything changes. Between ground and first floor levels above the torture equipment, a sinister, bagel-shaped black cloud forms. An angel brandishing a large wooden cross appears in the air about a metre above the balcony railing. The angel shoots a wide beam of light though the bagel-hole in the cloud. The results are as follows:

  • Catherine, wearing both a crown and a halo, is transfixed by the light radiating from the angel and levitates slightly from her block
  • The wooden torture wheels shatter into fragments
  • Flying debris fells the torturers
  • The onlooking crowd is thrown into disarray
  • The Empress beholds the angel in a beatific attitude of wonderment and adoration
  • The Emperor averts his gaze in fear and shame
  • The seven soldiers strike seven striking attitudes as they are bouleversed by the blast from the exploding wheels
  • The second soldier from the left gets clonked on the back of his helmet by a large fragment of a wheel rim
  • The third soldier from the right displays a particularly fetching pair of skin-tight shorts
  • On his way to the ground, the fourth soldier from the right takes a sneaky peek at the third soldier’s pert posterior.
Beheading of St Catherine of Alexandria
Pseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino, The Beheading of St. Catherine of Alexandria, c. 1325-30, North Carolina Museum of Art

Catherine is saved and the Emperor is humiliated. It’s a fiasco. Following the scene depicted in the painting, it seems that Maxentius is understandably livid. He decides against rebuilding the wheels or any other elaborate form of torture, and orders her simply to be beheaded, right there, right now.  The soldiers recover and oblige. As the martyr’s head is severed from her body, the crowd observes in wonderment that milk instead of blood gushes from her neck.

Thus is born the legend and the cult of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with her attribute, the Catherine Wheel. Over time, she is revered as one of the most popular and powerful saints of the Catholic church. “Looked upon as the holiest and most illustrious of the virgins of Christ after the Blessed Virgin Mary”[1], Catherine becomes the patron saint of young maidens, wheelwrights and mechanics. Having succeeded in her disputations with the sophists sent by Maxentius, her intercession is sought by philosophers and theologians.

She appears in a vision to Joan of Arc. She gives her name to an island off Brazil, a mountain in Arizona, towns in Canada and Finland, colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge, a crater on the Moon. And all this in spite of the fact that there is no documentary or historical evidence that she ever actually existed.

Brock's catherine wheelCatherine and her wheel also, of course, provide the name for a small paper-covered spiral object which my Dad would extract annually on 5th November from among an assortment of Roman Candles, Squibs, Sparklers, Bangers, Rockets, and Golden Rain, in a five-shilling bumper box of Brock’s or Astra fireworks purchased from Woolworth’s. In the evening, in the back garden, in commemoration of Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot of 1605, he would nail the Catherine Wheel to the shed as per the instructions printed inside the lid of the box, and then light the blue touch paper and retire. 

Having witnessed this process for countless years, and having later repeatedly attempted it myself for the entertainment and edification of my own children, I don’t recall ever having witnessed the successful ignition and rotation of a Catherine Wheel. Nothing more than feeble fizzling followed by extinction. Clearly Saint Catherine declined to intercede on any of these occasions.

If you have had the persistence to read to this point, you might be wondering why the blogger appears to have stopped writing about Random Treasure and started on a whole new career as a hagiographer. And you might also be wondering why I’m going on and on about a painting hanging in a church in Florence when I said at the start that I’ve bought a picture for myself. The reason is that my new picture is a copy of Bugiardini’s painting.

Its photo is above. It was catalogued at one of my local auction rooms as a print, but I wasn’t certain that that’s what it was. It looked old and interesting, so I made a small but successful bid and brought it home to study.

I had to start from a low knowledge base. Carefully removing the picture from its frame, I examined it as closely as possible. Within a very short period of time, I had many questions but no answers.

  • I could tell that it was old but how old?
  • I noted a pencil inscription in the lower left margin giving the dimensions in terms of alto (height) and largo (width), so might it have originated in Italy?
  • I could judge from the subject, composition and style that the image was drawn in a Renaissance style, but was it from the period or a later rendering?
  • I could guess that it might be a reproduction of an original painting, but if so, who was the artist?
  • I expected to establish that it was a print: prints are common. But it didn’t look like a print – I couldn’t observe any of the technical characteristics that I associate with pre-photographic printing techniques: engraving, etching, aquatint, lithograph, etc. So could it instead be a drawing? Drawings are rare, but the closer I looked at it, the more convinced I became that it is indeed hand-drawn. How could I find out?

I only knew one thing about my purchase for certain: that the subject is the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Anyone who has looked at a reasonable number of religious images will instantly associate this particular form of torture with this particular saint.

It’s the same with many other saints. You recognise them by their attributes and by the instruments of their martyrdom. Saint Sebastian with his body shot full of arrows. Saint Agatha holding her severed breasts on a plate. Saint Lucy holding her gouged eyes on a plate. Saint Andrew crucified on a X instead of a +. Saint Barbara with a model of the tower in which she was imprisoned. Saint Denis holding his own severed head between his hands.

I have a theory that there is a close statistical correlation between the cruel and sensational nature of a saint’s martyrdom, and the number of images of that martyr made by Renaissance artists. If ever I were to undertake a postgraduate degree in Art History, my dissertation would comprise a census of pictures of martyrdom by 15th and 16th century painters.  My guess is that Saint Sebastian, naked and exquisitely pierced with arrows, would top the popularity chart. Saint Catherine of Alexandria being broken on the wheel would almost certainly be in the top five.  

Thus, my starting point for research was to look online for the same image, either as original painted picture or as an engraved and printed copy, or preferably both. Fortunately many of the great painting collections and print collections are digitised, and most known pictures by most known artists can be identified and accessed after diligent searching. It should be possible to find a digital reproduction of the original painting containing this composition, and, if an engraving is known to have been made after the painting, to locate one or more copies of the print.

Using Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria as the basis for my search terms, I searched and googled and browsed and trawled for many hours. I found hundreds or thousands of images of pictures showing Saint Catherine with her wheel, but nothing nearly close enough to think that I had found either an original source painting or a print derived from it. I drew a blank.

Which led me to two tentative conclusions: first, that my picture was indeed a drawing because I couldn’t find it as a print; second, that it must be a copy of an uncatalogued or lost painting, so that my search for the original artist and artwork would most likely be fruitless.

You already know that I was entirely wrong in thinking that the original painting was lost or uncatalogued – because I reproduced the painting at the beginning of this post. I was also entirely wrong in thinking that there was no engraved copy of the painting – because I now know that there is indeed an engraving and you’ll see it in Part 2 of this blog post. I was however, right about one thing: my picture is a drawing.

I didn’t uncover any of this information as a result of my own research efforts. Instead, I did what I always do in these circumstances and sought expert advice. I never cease to be astonished at the willingness of scholars with world-class knowledge and status to share their expertise with amateurs, outsiders and upstarts such as myself.

I posted some photos of my drawing on the Facebook Old Master Prints and Drawings group, asking for pointers as to who the artist might be. And I received an almost instant response to my query, from an eminent curator of prints in the Amsterdam City Archives (I know of his impeccable credentials because I’ve looked up his Facebook profile). He provided a photo of the original Bugiardini painting, and confirmed from my photos that my picture is a drawing, not a print.

Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence

That’s how I found out about Giuliano Bugiardini and his oil painting hanging in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with a composition almost identical to that of my drawing. Now I had one hard fact from which to continue my research.

Next I looked up what is known about Bugiardini, and for a moment, just for a brief moment, I became very excited.

Giuliano Bugiardini (1475-1555) has always ranked well down in the second division of Renaissance painters. He was, however, significant enough to have a short biography included in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, first published in 1550. You can read a translation of Vasari’s chapter on Bugiardini, taken from the second edition of 1568, by clicking on this link.

According to Vasari, Bugiardini was a bit of a plodder, unoriginal, a very hard worker, very taken up with the importance of art, and very self-satisfied with the quality of his own artistic output. Despite his inadequacies as a painter, he was also regarded as a very nice man, and for much of his life he was a bosom buddy and best mate of the very biggest name in Florentine art in the early 16th century – none other than Michelangelo Buonarotti himself.

The story of how the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria came to be painted is the most elaborately related anecdote in Vasari’s biography of Bugiardini. The painter had the utmost difficulty in finishing the picture because he just couldn’t get the composition right. Much to the frustration of his patron Palla Rucellai, who wanted the picture finished and hung in the chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Bugiardino kept the incomplete painting in his studio for twelve long years, trying to work out how to populate the bottom section with a group of figures in satisfactory scale and perspective.

Michelangelo by Bugiardini
Giuliano Bugiardini, Portrait of Michelangelo Wearing a Turban, Casa Buonarotti, Florence

One day, when visiting Bugiardini in his studio, perhaps for a gossip over a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, Michelangelo had all he could take of his friend’s whining about his inability to finish the picture. Grabbing a stick of charcoal, Michelangelo approached the panel and rapidly sketched in on the foreground the outlines of a platoon of soldiers in the act of being flattened by the angel’s Catherine-wheel-shattering blast. 

Michelangelo’s intervention gave Bugiardini the nudge that he needed to progress with the picture. But then he had to have further assistance from another colleague who roughly modelled the positions of the soldiers in clay to help the painter to get the lighting and shadows right. But by the time the painting was eventually finished,  Bugiardini in his pedantic and unimaginative way had managed to obliterate all traces of Michelangelo’s mercurial and typically brilliant intervention.

As soon as I had read Vasari’s account of the origin of the painting, my own imagination went into overdrive, as it so often does. What if, I reasoned, what if Vasari got the story a bit wrong? What if instead of sketching the soldier figures into the blank foreground of Bugiardini’s painted panel, Michelangelo sketched them into a drawing for Bugiardini to imitate? What if my auction purchase isn’t in fact a copy of the completed painting but a preparatory drawing in which the soldiers are drawn in by Michelangelo’s own hand? Have I bought an original Michelangelo in my local saleroom?

Breathlessly, unthinkingly, I made this ridiculous, nonsensical suggestion in a new post to the Facebook group. Politely, considerately, the expert who had pointed me to Bugiardini as the maker of the painting explained that “the drawing is clearly much later than the painting”.

Of course it is. I can see, after a nanosecond of rational thought, that there is nothing about my drawing which suggests that it could have been made as early as the 16th century. The notion that Bugiardini and Michelangelo were directly concerned in my drawing is patently absurd. I really must try to get a better grip on reality.

So where did that leave me? With a drawing which is based on a considerably earlier painting by Bugiardini. That doesn’t help much. Who drew my drawing? When and where was it drawn? Would it help to do some more detective work, or was I wasting my time?

I decided to press on. To read about the next stage in my investigation, please proceed to Part 2: The Engraving.



4 thoughts on “Martyrdom: Part 1 – The Painting

  1. What fun! Thanks for bringing me along on your sleuthing and figuring.
    In Part the First, are two statements that left me wondering. They are:
    “… the drawing is clearly much later than the painting.”
    “…there is nothing about my drawing which suggests that it could have been made as early as the 16th century.”
    Would you mind elaborating on that? What evidence shows it is later?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks, David.
      You have asked a very perceptive question which I should have attempted to answer in the text. I guess I didn’t answer it firstly because I’m conscious that there’s only so much of my ramblings that loyal Random Treasure blog readers can take, and secondly because my strong opinion that the drawing was made much later than 1530 is mostly subjective and impressionistic, and is difficult to back up with evidence.
      My two principal reasons to believe the drawing is later are:
      (1) The paper upon which it is drawn. As a longtime (60+ years) collector of antiquarian books, I think I have developed some kind of a feel for the age of paper, and consider it would have been impossible for this particular weight and quality of laid paper to have been made as early as the 16th century;
      (2) The drawing style. Although the drawing is a pretty faithful copy of the painting, I feel that the artist has been unable to avoid letting a touch of the Romantic sensibility creep into his efforts to reproduce a Renaissance image. Comparing the faces and attitudes of Maxentius and Catherine between the two versions, I suggest that the drawing couldn’t really have been produced earlier than the second half of the 18th century.
      This explanation probably amounts to a fairly feeble defence of my opinion. Sadly, the more I think about and try to write about issues such as this, the more I regret my lack of a sound academic background in art history.


  2. Roger this is great stuff, a personal best if I may say so: you’ve hit several of my buttons: St Cath (my weird catholic education); Brocks Fireworks (oh, Golden Rain!) and of course the compelling proposition that you’ve picked up another ancient and priceless masterpiece on you way down Leith Walk.

    Can’t wait to read more but Anne is dragging me away to meet my new grandson Arlo, newly arrived at Nicky and Niki’s. More later.

    Best to you and Frances, Jerry

    Sent from my iPhone



    1. Hi Jerry
      Thanks as ever for your kind comments. Sadly, since I became convinced that the drawing isn’t by Michelangelo after all, there’s no way that it’s priceless. And as for a catholic education – my Rabbi would doubtless be appalled if he knew about my current preoccupation with saintly attributes. But I think all of us of a certain age have identical memories of fireworks night, complete with failed Catherine wheels and damp squibs.
      Many congratulations to Nicky and Niki and to you and Anne on the arrival of Arlo.


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