D.48 St. Denis (Dionysius The Areopagite) in a Niche

D.48 St. Denis

1535 or 1536

Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Hdz 3385.

Fig.D.48b bw

Pen and brown ink and brown wash, heightened with white, partly oxidized, over very faint traces of black chalk and traces of the use of a stylus in the architecture, 50.1 x 26.8; the drawing has been cut on all sides, through the upper parts of the putti at the top and the architecture at the bottom, and at the sides through the extension of the moulding of the frieze at left and right and the forehead of the cherub’s head of the frieze at the right; there are five major damaged areas with holes in the sheet, in the top corners, in the center of the sides, and in the lower left corner caused when the drawing was pulled free of the areas of adhesive that once held it in a mount; the drawing itself is most damaged in two of the putti above and slightly less in the decoration at the center of the column at the left; there is another small hole in the architecture at the lower left, and a horizontal crease, partly broken through, across the center; somewhat stained and spotted throughout; laid down; wm.?

PROVENANCE: H. Destailleur, no. 107 (see Berckenhagen, 1970, and Lugt 740).


Berckenhagen, 1970, 14, Hdz 3385, 15, Fig., as by Nicolò dell’Abate.

Timothy Clifford, review of Berckenhagen, 1970, in Master Drawings, XII, 4, 1974, 393-394, as not by Nicolò dell’Abate and much closer to Rosso, reminiscent of his Design for an Altar in the British Museum with its bald-headed putti and alternating consoles and cherub heads in the frieze.

Carroll, 1987, 218-221, no. 70, with Color Pl., as Rosso, 1535 or 1536.

Béguin, 1988 (1989), 10, Fig. 4, 11, as a copy by Léonard Thiry of a lost drawing by Rosso of the French period.

Franklin, 1988, 324-325, and Fig. 87, as by Rosso, if not an outstanding copy after a lost original, and as first exhibited in 1972 as possibly by Primaticcio [which I have not been able to confirm, unless 1972 is a mistake for 1970], and notes that one putto “flees from the gruesome [decapitated] head [of the saint] by running up the branches on the column shaft.”

Berckenhagen points out that this drawing was formerly catalogued as Anonymous Italian and that its present attribution to Nicolò dell’Abate is due to Dr. Sabine Jacob.  But while the shifting of this drawing into the catalogue of French drawings can be justified, if at first for no other reason than its subject, the first bishop of Paris, there is no evidence that supports the attribution to Nicolò dell’Abate.  Neither the architecture nor the figure correspond in conception or any detail with what is to be found in Nicolò dell’Abate’s art, including the drawings that Berckenhagen cites for comparison.  Graphically, the drawing bears little relation to Nicolò’s much looser draughtsmanship.

Timothy Clifford’s indication that the drawing is closer to Rosso can be seen to be correct for the reasons he gives and for others as well.  The alternating consoles and cherubs’ heads in the frieze create an architectural arrangement that is similar to what appears in Rosso’s Design for an Altar of 1529 in the British Museum (Fig.D.38a), although the consoles are concave in the Berlin drawing rather than convex.  The drawing in London also has, as recognized by Clifford, the bald-headed cherubs that are found in the St. Denis in a Niche.  Furthermore, the media, technique, and draughtsmanship of the latter are virtually identical to those of the British Museum drawing.  The figures and architecture are outlined with relatively even pen lines and are given relief by dark washes and white highlights.  In addition to these technical similarities, the drawings show the same graphic deftness in their penmanship and in the application of the whites.

These same characteristics can be found in Rosso’s Design for a Chapel of 1528-1529, also in the British Museum (Fig.D.37a) and a better preserved drawing than the Design for an Altar.  The frieze here is designed differently but there are two winged cherub heads in the spandrels of the arch at the top of the chapel.  But Rosso uses here the string of dentils along the entablature as in the St. Denis drawing, and the columns in both drawings are fluted only at the bottom, are decorated with leafy vines on the upper two-thirds, and have very similar composite capitals, the only major differences being the curved fluting, Solomonic form, and putti in the vines of the Berlin drawing.  It should also be noted in all three drawings that at the ends of the flat bands of the entablatures there is one small, dentil-like detail which impresses one as very individual and indicative of the same artist for all three of these architectural conceptions.

So far as the columns are concerned, they are very similar to those in Rosso’s Venus and Minerva fresco in the Gallery of Francis I (Fig.P.22, I N a), which also have curved fluting at the bottom and vines in relief above, but without putti and not Solomonic in form, although they are slightly curved above rather than absolutely straight.  The head beneath the niche in the Berlin drawing is almost identical to the head in stucco beneath the round fresco to the left of the Loss of Perpetual Youth in the gallery (Fig.P.22, II S a).  Above the niche are six putti which in age and playful activity are quite like those above the Education of Achilles fresco in the gallery (Fig.P.22, II N a).  At the top of the Petrarch drawing (Fig.D.47a), similar putti play among very similar garlands of fruits and flowers and leaves.  Other heads and putti and garlands like these can be found in many other works by Rosso, in the Gallery of Francis I and in such drawings as the copies of the Vertumnus and Pomona (Fig.D.46Aa; Fig.D.46B) and the copies of the Holy Family in a Cartouche (Fig.D.75A; Fig.D.75B; Fig.D.75C).

The figure of the saint himself, or rather the drapery that covers him, can be compared with the Virgin in the Madonna della Misericordia drawing in the Louvre (Fig.D.35a) and with the Standing Apostle in the British Museum (Fig.D.36a).  All of these drawings show similar broad planes of drapery and a long diagonal at the edge of an upper garment falling across an undergarment.  The stiffness of the drapery and something of its consequent angularity are comparable to what appears in Rosso’s St. Paul and St. Peter known from an engraving by Boyvin (Fig.E.8a), although the planes in the drawing are broader, probably indicative of its somewhat later date.

It has already been pointed out how similar the media, technique, and draughtsmanship of the St. Denis are to those of Rosso’s Design for an Altar and Design for a Chapel.  There are also other drawings by Rosso that the Berlin drawing very closely resembles in these regards: the Petrarch drawing in Oxford, which has already been mentioned for its putti and garlands, the Annunciation in the Albertina (Fig.D.43a), and the Mars and Venus in the Louvre (Fig.D.42a).  The character and quality of the penmanship – note especially the drawing of the feet – and the fine brushwork of the white highlights are virtually identical in all these drawings.

Béguin thought the quality of the drawing poor and attributed it to Thiry as a copy of a lost drawing by Rosso.  She compared it to the Education of Achilles drawing (Fig.D.53) and the Allegory of Deceit drawing (Fig.D.56), which are copies of lost drawings by Rosso, and which she believed are by Thiry.  The latter is inscribed with Thiry’s name and may be by him.  But the other drawing is not necessarily by the same hand and not provable as Thiry’s.  But neither is of the quality of the St. Denis drawing, a quality which in my estimation is worthy of Rosso himself.

While the comparisons that have been made indicate that the St. Denis in a Niche is an autograph drawing by Rosso, its date requires further considerations of these drawings and of some others.  The largeness of the conception of the saint, whose headless body entirely fills the niche in which he is standing, points to a date later than that of the Madonna della Misericordia and the Standing Apostle, both of which can be placed in 1529.  But as stated above, the subject of the Berlin drawing would alone suggest a later date, within Rosso’s French period.  Again, the largeness of the form of the figure suggests that it was done later than the Annunciation in the Albertina and the St. Paul and St. Peter, engraved by Boyvin, both of which seem to date between 1530 and 1532.  The St. Denis appears also later than the Vertumnus and Pomona of 1532 or 1533, and later than the Petrarch drawing of around 1534.  What the figure most resembles is the large figures in the Enlightenment of Francis I (Fig.P.22, VII S a) and the Venus and Minerva in the Gallery of Francis I that would seem to have been conceived in the second phase of the making of designs for the Gallery of Francis I, in 1535 and early 1536 (Fig.P.22, I N a).  In his proportions and in something of the ease of his posture, the saint bears a certain resemblance to the figure of Minerva in the Venus and Minerva fresco even though the actual pose of that figure is quite different.  The penmanship of the hands and feet of the saint is very much like that in the drawing in Besançon (Fig.D.59) for the Revenge of Nauplius in the gallery, also done, it would seem, in 1535 or early 1536.  Although this drawing is a copy, it is certainly one that accurately records the manner of Rosso’s penmanship of the lost original, and it is this manner, more authoritatively handled, that appears in the St. Denis in a Niche.  The Berlin drawing probably dates also from 1535 or early 1536 as it is most similar to the paintings and drawing that can be placed in this period.1

The Berlin drawing seems to be the model for an actual statue in a real architectural niche.  At the top of the drawing, the continuation of the architectural moulding with details to the right and left just below the pediment appears to indicate that the niche was designed to belong to a larger architectural setting.  Certain details of the drawing – the garlands and putti above the pediment and the pillow with its tassel extending beyond the niche below – at first suggest that the statue and niche were not designed to be executed in stone, but perhaps in stucco instead.  The one French architectural and sculptural drawing, the Design for a Tomb in the British Museum (Fig.D.81a), shows a model that would have most likely been planned for execution in stone, and it shows nothing like the details pointed out above in the Berlin drawing.  Nevertheless, it cannot be concluded for certain that the drawing was not meant for carved stone, just as it cannot be insisted upon that it was to be executed in stucco, although it is with the stucco sculpture in the Gallery of Francis I that the figure and some of the details in the drawing can be thought to be most related.  But it has also to be noted that none of the stucco architecture in the gallery is really of the implied size, or scale, in relation to the figure, that is found in the St. Denis in a Niche.  It is possible that the drawing was intended for a painting in imitation of sculpture and architecture, or for a tapestry, as may have been the case with the Petrarch drawing at Christ Church.

The subject of the drawing would seem to indicate that it was made for a project planned for some site in the city of Paris, of which St. Denis was the first bishop.  He was also the patron saint of the Royal House of France but the drawing shows no symbolism that would associate it with Francis I or his family.2  One site for which it might have been designed is the Hôtel de Ville in Paris.  In 1529, a new Hôtel de Ville was projected and by 1533 a wooden model for it had been made by Domenico da Cortona.  Some work on the building itself had been done by the time Rosso died3 and it is possible that he made a plan for the decoration of a part of it, for the chapel of the building, perhaps.  Early sixteenth century group portraits of the members of the Bureau de Ville show them in a chapel before an altarpiece with a statue of St. Denis in a niche at one side.  For one painting, this chapel has been identified as that in the nearby hospital of Saint-Esprit, where religious ceremonies of the Bureau de Ville were held.4  Rosso’s drawing could instead have been made for this location.  But until real evidence is discovered the nature and intended location of the project represented by the Berlin drawing remain a matter of probable conjectures.


1 This manner of drawing with the pen is found in other drawings that seem to be later drawings, which again are known only from copies: the Pietà of around 1537 (Fig.D.71A), the Holy Family in a Cartouche of around 1538 (Fig.D.75A), and the Pandora Adorned by Venus and the Hours of 1539-40 (Fig.D.77).  Together these copies, along with the Revenge of Nauplius drawing, document a manner of Rosso’s draughtsmanship of the 1530s, the autograph character of which is shown in the St. Denis.  But for other stylistic characteristics, the poses of the figures and the compositions of these works, these drawings seem to be slightly later.  The autograph Design for a Tomb in the British Museum, which, because of its combination of architecture and figures, should be comparable to the St. Denis in a Niche, is drawn in a much freer manner, which can be associated with other works that form a group probably to be dated in 1539 or 1540.  The Berlin drawing cannot be related to this group and is, therefore, most likely an earlier drawing.

2 On St. Denis and St. Dionysius the Areopagite, see Louis Reau, Iconographie de l’art chrétien, III, 1, Paris, 1958, 373-382.

3 See Lucien Lambeau, L’Hôtel de Ville de Paris, Paris, 1908, 3-14, and 22 with mention of tapestries in place in the sixteenth century and that “y compris le fameux plan tissé en 1540 et dont on ignore le sort;” see also Pierre Lesueur, Dominique de Cortone dit Le Boccador, Paris, 1928, 91-104, and David Thomson, Renaissance Paris, Architecture and Growth 1475-1600, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984, 73-77.  Shearman, BM, 1966, 63, noted that Charles Dorigny, who was an assistant to Rosso in the Gallery of Francis I in 1535 and 1536 (not from 1533 on; see under P.22), earlier, in 1534, worked on sculpture at the Hôtel de Ville (see also Barocchi, 1950, 104, and n. 1, with reference to A. Félibien, Entretiens sur les vies et ouvrages des plus excellens peintures, Paris, 1685, I, 704.  Barocchi thought he was cited in the gallery twice in 1534, but this, I believe, should be 1535 or 1535-1536).

4 See Jacques Wilhelm, “Pourbus, peintre de la municipalité parisienne,” Art de France, 111, 1963, 121, Fig. 11, 123, and Sylvie Béguin, “Guillaume Dumée, disciple de Dubreuil,” Studies in Renaissance and Baroque Art presented to Anthony Blunt on his 60th Birthday, London, New York, 1967, 95-96, and especially ns. 26 and 31, and Fig. 6.