Welcome to Your Favorite Things, our ongoing series where students, community members, and staff of the museum discuss their favorite works from the museum’s collection. Today, Rebecca Hinton, a security guard here at the museum, discusses, St. Dorothy, a large oil painting by Bernardo Strozzi that can be found in the Gealt Gallery in Gallery of the Art of the Western World on the first floor of the museum.
Full disclaimer: I do not have a favorite artwork in our museum, any more than I have a favorite film, food, or color. How do people do that? After all, to play favorites is to bring a built-in lens to anything that you are trying to appreciate: it limits the potential for joy, and limits what you actually see. However, I’ll try to play along, just this once. As an art museum security guard, I actually have extensive time to live with and savor our collection, in a way that even other members of our staff are not really able to do. And one of the pieces that I find exquisite, that is moving, that has presence and emotional impact, is Bernardo Strozzi’s St. Dorothy.
Image: Rebecca Hinton with St. Dorothy
A monumental figure is gracefully seated in the darkness, patiently awaiting your approach. Your eye falls to her sandaled foot, which gingerly nudges itself out of the blackness. Above this foot is a swirl of darkness and beautiful fabrics: blue, yellow, pink, and filmy white seem to fly about her figure like startled birds, only to vanish into the void beyond. Her right arm appears to be resting on an unseen chair – the most beautiful hand curves downward, long fingers gently holding a tendril of that restless fabric, moving about her figure. In her other arm she cradles a child-angel, who holds a rose against his breast. The faces of both figures are pale and flushed. Unnaturally flushed? Is St. Dorothy unwell, or is she already not quite of this world? Either way the blush in the cheeks of both figures is evocative of the petals of the rose in the child’s hands. The child’s gaze is focused somewhere beyond, but St. Dorothy’s gaze is steady, her face turned fully toward the viewer. She has the aspect of a good listener, and of someone who knows the world and its sorrows. Her expression and the child’s are both full of pathos, but St. Dorothy’s is particularly complex. Her face is made exquisite by the traces of sadness and pain in her expression, but she is also steady, composed, and resolute. She is both monumentally there (she fills the entire canvas), but fleeting. She has decided to briefly, gingerly, emerge out of that darkness, for the sake of the viewer. She is here. She is listening.
Like the best Madonnas, St. Dorothy gazes down at the viewer with a knowing look, full of compassion. I have always found it interesting how often male saints are depicted as looking up, aspiring toward heaven, whereas Mary and the female saints are more likely to be looking down at the spectator. It seems to me that these ladies are already with God, and their energies are focused on others. They are coming from another place, and they are here to help. Second disclaimer: I was a Religious Studies major back in college. In Catholicism, Mary acts as an intercessor, a bridge between mortals and heaven. Female saints like Dorothy often seem to be portrayed in the same way. According to the accounts of her life, Dorothy was persecuted, tortured, and killed for her faith. Before she was beheaded, she told the mob gathered about her that she looked forward to going to a place that knew no winter. A man in the crowd named Theophilus attempted to ridicule her by requesting a basket of roses and apples from heaven. Dorothy earnestly promised to fulfill that request. That winter an angel in the guise of a small boy brought the roses and the apples. Theophilus converted to Christianity, and in turn was also martyred.
The story is full of pain, but also the beauty of hope. The promise of fruit and flowers, the promise in the dead of winter that spring, full of life and fecundity, will return, is ancient, deep, and good (and found across religions). It is a simple miracle, but that makes it all the more poignant and powerful. The painting is symbolically rich. The mysterious darkness from which St. Dorothy emerges – is it God? The Unknown? Death?—I’ve always loved the play of light and dark: the dappled light under a tree, or in an Impressionist painting, the curious play of positive and negative space in a silhouette, or in the exquisitely carved crescent shapes of an Alamblak Peoples’ War and Hunting Spirit Figure, or in the intricate designs of a lime spatula handle (both of which can be found in our third floor gallery). Light and dark, the known and the unknown, at play or fighting for dominance, is powerful, provocative, stimulating. What isn’t being revealed? Are we ever really content to accept the view presented to us? Like St. Dorothy, Strozzi was no stranger to pain and suffering. He left the monastery to care for his ailing mother, and he had to take painting commissions in order to make ends meet. I am both intrigued and impressed by Strozzi: painter, monk, and caregiver, all in one life. He seemed to have a good sense of priorities, and a foot in both the sacred and secular realms. Anyone who could paint a face like St. Dorothy’s, or that beautiful hand, curling in toward the darkness…I hope you come and visit her, and our other treasures someday soon, and I hope you find them as stimulating and as nourishing as I do.
If you would like to talk about your favorite work at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, write to us at email@example.com.