This oil sketch has been the source of scholarly discussion over the course of the past half-century, both in terms of its attribution and subject matter. Otto Benesch, who was the first to publish the painting in a Festschrift for Walter Friedländer in 1965, believed it to be an early work by Rubens, painted during his stay in Italy between 1600 and 1608 (loc. cit.). Julius Held, who had seen the painting on at least two occasions, was somewhat more circumspect and suggested a later date of circa 1615-16. On account of the painting’s condition, Held was unable to say with certitude whether the painting was a ‘damaged original or a good early copy’ (loc. cit.).
Held was also the first scholar to correctly identify the painting’s obscure subject, which depicts the torture of the third-century Christian martyr Chrysanthus. Chrysanthus, the only son of the Egyptian patrician Polemius (Poleon), converted to Christianity after becoming disenchanted with the Roman world. His father, having grown irritated by his son’s conversion, arranged for him to marry Daria, a Roman priestess of Minerva. Chrysanthus succeeded in converting her to Christianity and the two in turn converted a number of other Romans. At hearing this, the Roman tribune Claudius ordered the couple arrested, imprisoned and tortured. A bull-calf was skinned and wrapped around Chrysanthus’ body and he was left to bake in direct sunlight, though his faith remained unshaken. Struck by Chrysanthus’ fortitude, Claudius, his wife, their two sons and seventy Roman soldiers all converted to Christianity. Irate at his tribune’s conversion, the emperor ordered that Claudius and his family be executed and Chrysanthus and Daria be buried alive in a pit near the catacombs in Rome.
Though seldom encountered in painting, the torture of Saint Chrysanthus appears again in the central panel of a large altarpiece by Hendrik de Clerck (1619) commissioned by the tanners guild in Brussels for Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-ter-Kapelle. The two paintings show a number of similarities in composition, including the placement of the nearly nude saint in the lower left quadrant, a round Roman temple in the upper left background and the rider and pennant at center right. In light of the subject’s rarity, it is tempting to view the present painting as Rubens’ presentation sketch to the tanners guild, which instead selected the work of de Clerck, a local Brussels painter.
The reverse of the lining canvas includes an inscription in Cyrillic and French, the latter of which indicates the painting was transferred from panel to canvas by one ‘Hacquin’ in 1765, no doubt the master restorer Jean-Louis Hacquin (before 1726-1783). The following year, Hacquin would become the favored restorer for the French Royal Collection when he accepted the job of transferring a now-destroyed painted ceiling by Simon Vouet in the Château de Vincennes. His process was so successful that he was subsequently entrusted with the transfer of such masterpieces as Domenichino’s Timoclea before Alexander (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Resurrection of Lazarus, then in the Órleans Collection (National Gallery, London).
The Cyrillic inscription appears to have been transcribed by someone unfamiliar with the alphabet, but the letters ‘SPB’, an abbreviation for St. Petersburg, stand out. According to the 1961 Udine exhibition catalogue, the painting once formed a part of the famed Stroganov Collection at the family palace in St. Petersburg. Though it is yet unknown which member of the family acquired the painting, the likeliest candidate would seem to be Count Alexander Sergeievich Stroganov (1733-1811), who settled in Paris in 1771 and built the majority of the collection. The painting presumably passed in the family to Grigory Sergeievich Stroganov (1829-1910), who spent the latter part of his life in Rome, which would account for the painting’s presence in Italy in the mid-twentieth century.
An inferior copy of this composition, identified as the dispute between Paul and Barnabas and with slight differences in detail, sold Vanderkinde, Brussels, 13 November 2019, lot 270. We are grateful to Dr. Bert Schepers of the Rubenianum for his assistance cataloguing the present lot and for identifying the second version of this painting.