Edited by Donatella Biagi Maino

This exquisite painting is an elegantly detailed depiction of the young martyr Euphemia of Chalcedon in Bithynia on the point of martyrdom. Its indisputable creator was the great Bolognese artist Donato Creti, one of the interpreters of early 18th century European painting who portrayed the story of the girl martyred at the beginning of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. Despite being tortured, Euphemia refused to forswear her Christian faith, and was fed to lions who, according to the hagiographic legend, did not devour her body, recognising its sanctity.

A monastery in Rimini was dedicated to the Greek saint. And in the 18th century Creti, who worked in Rimini on several occasions, was commissioned to paint a large altarpiece. Unfortunately it was one of the three paintings was removed during the Napoleonic era. In 1822 the work was moved to Osnago, near Milan, although it belongs to the Pinacoteca di Brera1.

Donato Creti, Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon. Parish of Saint Stephen, Osnago, Milan
Donato Creti, Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon. Parish of Saint Stephen, Osnago, Milan

That painting, which bears the artist’s mark and has been dated to 1735 based on a laudatory ode written about it2, is magnificent in its inventiveness and poetic emphasis, and the work in question here, a splendid image with a striking religious and poetic content, is almost surely its precedent. It is an almost definitive study of the young woman3 giving herself over to martyrdom in a gesture of complete acceptance, firm and trusting in her faith.

It is an image that meets the precepts that Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV, bishop of Bologna beginning in 1731, set forth for the city’s artists, evoking the precedent set by Cardinal Paleotti, who in his Discourse on sacred and profane images prompted by the prescriptions of the Council of Trent, asked painters to hold to a standard of maximum clarity in what their works communicated to the faithful4.

Creti was able to answer the call of catholicity, handling the difficulties of invention in a small dimension that suited his talents and that he favored, as it allowed him, much more than in the finished work, to indulge his propensity for delicate, shimmering painting made up of light touches and a highly refined brushwork.

In this painting, we can see the exquisite gracefulness with which he handled the brush soaked with light color to delineate the folds in the mantle with its beautiful bright yellow and sky-blue colors. The quick touches of color that define Euphemia’s refined garments (she was from a noble family) and the forthright design of the geometrical folds are so characteristic of Creti’s unique style. All of these elements together indicate with certainty Donato Creti as one of the greatest painters in Europe in the first decades of the century of enlightenment.

1 Donatella Biagi Maino, signed catalogue entry, in Pinacoteca di Brera. Scuola Emiliana, ed. Federico Zeri, Electa, Milan 1991, pp. 186-187. Ivi information on the painting, which bears the mark <D. C. B. P>, Donatus Cretis Bononiensis Pinxit, measures 300 x 180 cm, and is now in the parish of Osnago, where it was hung in 1822 after having been taken from the nuns by Napoleon’s men in 1811.

2 The Marquis Diotallevi Bonadrata composed an ode to it that year: ivi.

3 Compared to the finish work, the preparatory sketch has a smaller knot in the mantle, and the decoration of the neckline of the garment and the chains binding the saint’s arms to the stump are missing.

4 Gabriele Paleotti, Discorso sulle immagini sacre e profane, Alessandro Benacci, Bologna 1582: Prospero Lambertini, in the protection accorded to the Clementine Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture of the city’s Institute of Sciences – a prestigious institution that Creti had helped create –, demonstrated his agreement with the precepts of his predecessor as Bishop of Bologna (cf. Donatella Biagi Maino, edited by, in L’immagine del Settecento da luigi Ferdinando Marsili a Benedetto XIV, Allemandi, Turin 2005: on pp. 39-46 Creti’s contribution to the culture of his time is discussed).

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