Born in Vicenza in 1605, Francesco Maffei is considered one of the most appealing 17th century artists from the Veneto. Little, however, is known regarding his training, his early period or his first works as a mature painter. Nonetheless, this prolific painter of considerable merit has been unanimously considered by art historians to be an important Baroque artist.
The present oil is painted on an uncommon and fragile support in the form of a sheet of stone. This is the only known use of this material in the artist’s oeuvre, which was compiled by Paola Rossi in a catalogue raisonné published in 1991 In addition to the originality of the support this subject is not found again in Maffei’s output.
Little is known about the provenance of this painting. It was acquired for the Collection in 1977 from the Italian art market and is included in the catalogues of the Collection from 1986, at which date it was published by Gertrude Borghero.
The attribution to Maffei has never been doubted and it is unanimously considered an autograph painting. The date of the work, however, has been the subject of debate. In general, it is not easy to date Maffei’s paintings given the nature of his stylistic evolution and the problems of reconstructing his early output.
Paola Rossi dated the present painting to around the mid-1620s and thus within the artist’s early phase. She based her opinion on the technical similarities between this work and three others, The Annunciation and The Guardian Angel (both in Vicenza) and St. Carlo Borromeo (Sondalo). Rossi compared the type of brushstroke and the way of constructing the different areas of the composition using a highly charged brush and rapid, brilliant touches, characteristic of Maffei’s style in the 1620s. Roberto Contini, however, considered this suggestion to be based on little concrete evidence and opted for a date of around 1656, an opinion also given some years later by Caroline de Watteville. Contini compared the figure of the Archangel with the one to be seen in The Guardian Angel, a painting commissioned from Maffei in 1656 for the church of Verolanuova in Brescia. According to Contini, the background of clouds, smoke and fire against which the Archangel stands out is derived from a print after Raphael by Nicolas Beatrizet (Beatricetto, 1507 or 1515-ca. 1565), of which there is an impression in the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome. Maffei reinterpreted that image in his own highly distinctive manner.