Artemisia Gentileschi’s 1619 “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” bears a stark resemblance to the similarly titled 1615-17 self-portrait owned by London’s National Gallery: Both depict regal, dark-haired women clad in red, clasping the saint’s characteristic broken torture wheel while holding a martyr’s palm close to the chest. But while one turbaned figure offers viewers a defiant side-long stare, the other, donning only a crown, fixes her meditative gaze up toward the heavens.
It makes sense, then, that the 1619 canvas, now held by Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, turns out to bear a familiar scene underlying the finished painting. Although “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” depicts the Grand Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici’s daughter Caterina, a preliminary version of the work, hidden underneath the visible layer for five centuries, almost directly mirrors the National Gallery’s “Self-Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria.”
The find, according to Marcello Lazzerini of Italian news site L’Indro, suggests the 1619 portrait is a “mash-up” of sorts, borrowing elements from the 1615-17 painting to complement the Baroque artist’s rendering of de’ Medici. It’s also possible, the Associated Press notes, that the underpainting was part of a separate project Gentileschi discontinued for unknown reasons. If so, she likely re-used the canvas in order to save on materials.
Writing for Italian news agency Adnkronos, Paolo Martini notes that researchers from Florence’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure spent a month conducting non-invasive tests, including ultraviolet and infrared imaging, on the Uffizi portrait. Led by Maria Luisa Reginella and Roberto Bellucci under the supervision of Cecilia Frosinini, the team identified an array of details painted over in the work’s final version.
Most elements align with the National Gallery canvas, Laura Montanari of Firenze Repubblica reports: Catherine, wearing a turban instead of a crown, turns her gaze more directly toward the viewer. Her left hand is positioned slightly differently, and her dress’ neckline boasts a veil (according to the researchers, the collar appears to be more in line with masculine attire, perhaps hinting at a bold idea the artist later shelved).
But one feature—a “mysterious little face on the left-side of St. Catherine’s own face,” as the AP observes—is missing in both of the finished paintings, making it the only remnant of a long-forgotten, or perhaps abandoned, Gentileschi creation.
Speaking with Martini, the team behind the analysis outlines several theories for the 1619 canvas’ evolution. Building on a long-held theory that Gentileschi used her own image as a model for the women in her paintings, the experts argue she could have started with the basic framework established by the 1615-17 portrait, then added distinct changes to better align the portrait with her de’ Medici patron.
Regardless of the exact reasons for the artist’s change in direction, the Uffizi views the newly unearthed painting as a welcome addition to its extant collection of five Gentileschi works. In both "Saint Catherine" and the hidden underdrawing, viewers now have yet another example of the Baroque artist's commitment to—and skill in—depicting powerful women.