‘Stone Paintings: Science and the Sacred 1530-1800’ Review: A Foundation of Artistic Ingenuity

Saint Louis

‘Paintings on stone: Science and the Sacred 1530-1800″, exhibited at the Museum of Art of Saint Louis, begins strong, with “The servants of Henry III” (circa 1570), an astonishing image by an unknown artist of the school of Fontainebleau, possibly Lucas de Heere. A close-up view of three effeminate men in profile, dressed in pearls, buckles and sumptuous striped garments, it depicts the male lovers of the King of France, portrayed neatly in oil on slate. It is an attractive introduction to an exhibition whose thesis may seem esoteric to a public more sensitive to image than to matter.

‘Henry III’s Servants’ (circa 1570)


Milwaukee Museum of Art/Photo: John R. Glembin

The practice of using stone as a support for painting, instead of a wooden panel or canvas, dates back to antiquity, but it fell out of favor until the end of the Italian Renaissance, when Sebastiano del Piombo developed methods that improved the adhesion of paint to stone. In the early days, as exemplified by Sebastiano’s “The Minions” and the plain and simple “Portrait of Ippolito de’ Medici” (1530s), artists painted over all the stone, without using any potential visual effects. Stone was valued for its enduring quality, which attributed a kind of power and permanence to artists’ subjects.

Very soon, however, the works became more interesting and the exhibition, curated by Judith W. Mann, got even better. In the 1590s, artists looked to slate, marble, lapis lazuli, agate, amethyst, alabaster, obsidian, onyx, jasper, limestone, and porphyry to imagine a new kind of paint. In these works they left parts of the stone bare and used the colors, streaks, reflections, contours and other natural characteristics of the stone as compositional elements.

“Rest on the Flight into Egypt” by Jacques Stella (1629-1630) painted on lapis lazuli


Pajelu collection

Lapis lazuli provided a perfect substitute for sky and water. Artists like Giuseppe Cesari (known as Cavaliere d’Arpino) took advantage of the stone’s intense blue hues in “Perseus Rescueing Andromeda” (1593-94). More creative, Jacques Stella transformed his slab for “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1629-1630) into a brilliant nocturnal scene: its lapis sky is cut in two by a white streak – formed by the calcite of the stone – resembling a meteor shower. A larger calcite slab suggests the bright glow of the moon behind a tree. And Mary and Jesus receive natural (if uneven) halos by sparkling flecks of golden pyrite in the lapis.

Other stones presented different opportunities. When Orazio Gentileschi chooses golden alabaster for his “Annunciation” (1602-1605), he places the angel Gabriel on the left in a whorled and luminous space, kneeling on a swollen cumulus suggested by the natural motif. Above Gabriel, Gentileschi painted an infant Jesus in an egg-shaped “cloud” and the Holy Spirit in a smaller cloud puff. To the right of the stone, less voluminous and smaller, he painted Mary kneeling before a prie-dieu in the middle of columns, both “marbled” by the marks of the stone.

“The Annunciation” by Orazio Gentileschi (1602-1605)



Sigismundo Leyrer chose a piece of agate with a prominent, light, ringed oval for his two-sided “Annunciation” and “Resurrection of Christ” (1594). On the front, the angel Gabriel seems to float up to Mary in the cloud-shaped oval, and on the back, the risen Christ rises from the same place to heaven. The translucency of the agate lends celestiality to both images.

Paintings on stone: science and the sacred 1530-1800,

Saint Louis Art Museum

Until May 15

And Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, one of the great Spanish painters of the 17th century, used obsidian to dramatize “The Nativity” (circa 1665-1670). With painting, he shines the brightest light of his nocturnal scene on Jesus, then, to lesser degrees, on Mary, the angels and Saint Joseph. He uses the subtle vertical veins of the stone to connect his scene to the sky. The label, typical of many informative object descriptions in this clever exhibit, suggests a connection to the Aztecs, who bestowed spiritual power on the reflective nature of obsidian. Murillo may have chosen this slab – which could be a Pre-Columbian polished stone mirror, according to the exhibition catalog – for this reason.

Two little-known artists shine here with a thousand lights, with multiple nuggets. Stella is one. He painted “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” several times on different stones, with different effects. Beyond his lapis piece, two other versions (1629-30) are here. One is on jasper, an opaque aggregate stone often mottled with many colors, and the other is on pietra paesina, a form of limestone. In both, Stella used the colors and streaks of the stone to form elements of the landscape – rocks, fields of wheat, a spring of water.

Antonio Tempesta also stands out, notably for “The Crossing of the Red Sea” (circa 1610), a scene he painted more than a dozen times – on alabaster, brecciated limestone (an aggregate of fragments colored) and red “marble” (also a kind of limestone). This one, on brecciated limestone, brilliantly exploits a rust-colored ridged band diagonally cutting across the stone to represent the sea. Moses and his followers stand on two patches of dry land, one muddy in color with brown rocks and the other bright green. The pharaoh’s half-submerged army battles the stormy sea – which now fills its seabed.

“The Crossing of the Red Sea” by Antonio Tempesta (circa 1610)


Szepmuveszeti Muzeum / Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

During the 15 years that Ms. Mann worked on this exhibition, she discovered some 1,500 stone paintings by artists in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. Many are fragile, heavy and risky to carry; some owners were reluctant to lend. But the 70 pieces (plus a few works of art in other media) collected here make one wonder why “Paintings on Stone” is the first museum exhibition to delve into this fascinating partnership between the artist and nature. .

art for the Journal and other publications.

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