Antiques -
Reference: Z6696

Frans van de Casteele (Kasteels) called Francesco da Castello
(Brussels, ca. 1541 - Rome, 1621)
Adoration of the shepherds
Crowning of Thorns
First decade of the 17th century.
Temper and gold on parchment, 290 x 240 mm (with frame).
Original wooden frame with applications in cut silver foil; at the angles, medallions with the four evangelists.

This beautiful pair of Agnus Dei is formed by two oval miniatures on parchment representing the Adoration of the shepherds and the Coronation of thorns, framed by contemporary frames of perforated silver foil, on a background of blue taffeta, inscribed in turn in frames of wood veneered. At the angles of both cut silver frames, four medallions with miniatures of the Evangelists on a gold background are included, while in the center of the lateral margins four angelic heads and three silver rosettes are applied respectively. The two central miniatures, perfectly preserved, represent a joyful and a painful episode of the life of Jesus Christ. The first shows the Holy Family surrounded by pastors in a worshiper attitude, offering presents to the Child Jesus. The shepherd in the foreground, kneeling and with his back to the viewer, rests one hand on a wide-brimmed hat and with the other offers a basket. Another shepherd gives him a sheep with its legs tied, a symbol of the Christian sacrificial lamb, while a third one plays the zampoña accompanied by four other characters and a long-nosed dog. The scene takes place outdoors, next to a stable from which the ox and the donkey show their heads, before a landscape of hills with the ruins of a temple. In the upper central part, an angel in a luminous glory holds a phylacterium with the text "Glory [...]". The Virgin tenderly shows those present to the Child wrapped in a white cloth, while Joseph behind him rests on a pillar. The miniature, bright and brightly colored, enhanced with chrysographs, carries in its lower zone the characteristic heap of dark earth with a branch, an unmistakable signature of the artist that appears in all his landscape-setting miniatures.
The Crowning of Thorns is an episode of the Passion cycle that follows that of flogging and precedes that of Ecce Homo, after which Christ was led to the crucifixion. The scene takes place in a courtyard, in whose center Jesus, sitting on a stage and dressed in a purple cloak lit with chrysographs, wears the crown of thorns and holds a rod in his hand as a scepter. Two soldiers fit the crown on the head of Christ with two reeds that at the intersection form the symbol of the cross, making his forehead bleed, while another minion kneels before him to mock him. In the background some guards with characteristic turbans attend the scene under a green curtain lined in red, while in the lower area there is an open hole in the pavement that constitutes a characteristic motif of the artist present in all his miniatures set in interiors.
Both miniatures, of great artistic quality, are undoubtedly the work of Francesco da Castello, Italianized name of Frans van de Casteele (Brussels, ca. 1541 - Rome, October 23, 1621). Francesco da Castello, painter and miniaturist, arrived in Rome during the pontificate of Gregory XIII (r. 1572-1585) and specialized very soon in the "small way", as Giovanni Baglione recalls in the biography dedicated to the artist:

“At that time, Francesco da Castello came from Flanders to Rome, who already had some knowledge of painting. But here in Rome he was perfecting, and delighting him to work in small, to which he felt inclined, the genius led him in that direction, becoming a good miniaturist, and performed beautiful works, which marched to Spain, as he also worked for various characters and great princes, and carried out things that gave him great praises. He also painted large, successfully, and did many works for the Spanish nation. [...] This man painted few things for public places, because he was very busy making miniatures, which he carried out excellently, and they were paid at a good price; and many of his works have remained in the hands of individuals, and some of the most beautiful were sent to other parts of the world ”(cf. G. Baglione, Le Vite de 'Pittori ..., Rome 1642, pp. 86-87 ).

In Rome Francesco da Castello developed a brilliant career, was portrayed by Hendrick Goltzius and related to important flamenco characters and scholars, including Philips van Winghe, Abraham Ortelius and Hendrick de Raeff de Delft, called Enrico Corvino, who in 1603 married his daughter Caterina. Added to the Congregation of the Virtuosos of the Pantheon, since 1577 he was a member of the Academy of San Lucas, of which he was consul in 1588 and in 1591.
His house soon became a meeting place for artists where many of his countrymen found hospitality and a valuable point of reference to enter the Roman environment. In addition, along with Francesco da Castello they learned “the good way to paint in small”, appropriating the essential features of the teacher's style, as Baglione narrates about his German disciple Sigismondo Laire (ca. 1552-1639), who specialized in "copper coloring small figures" and "painting on various jewels, such as lapis lazuli, agates, emeralds, carnelian, and other things" (cf. ibidem, p. 353).
From this news it is clear that Francesco da Castello was an artist appreciated by his contemporaries and well integrated in the Roman artistic and cultural environment.
In recent years the catalog of the works of the flamenco artist, known above all for his large altar blades, has been increased with new miniatures preserved in museums and private collections around the world. Among its most beautiful miniatures should be mentioned the Adoration of the Magi of the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, characterized by a bright chromaticism with iridescent effects and a descriptive preciousness typical of the Flemish way. Another miniature, with the Annunciation, formerly in the Luigi Koelliker collection, is the reworking of a widespread iconographic model derived from the famous thirtentist fresco of the Annunciation of the Church of the Most Holy Annunciated in Florence, of which the face of the Virgin, which according tradition had been painted by angels, was particularly revered and regarded as miraculous. In the mid-fifteenth century the sacred image acquired a special value for the Medicis, which prohibited its reproduction at least until the early eighties of the sixteenth century, when due to the continuous requests by influential characters of the time, permission was granted to copy it In 1584 Alessandro Allori painted a replica of her commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to send as a gift to Felipe II of Spain, which is still preserved today in the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
A delicious image of the Custodian Angel, recently located in a private collection in Valencia, in addition to fulfilling a devotional function - typical of this genre of works - gave protection to those who owned it. The cult of the saints, ratified in the XXV and last session of the Council of Trent (1563), had firmly spread the belief that their intercession increased by reciting prayers in the presence of their relics or their images, especially if the latter they had been in contact with their remains or had been blessed by the pope. Relics and sacred images were often associated with the power to grant or transmit indulgences to those who possessed them. This raised in the powerful the desire to have numerous relics and increased the production of devotional images that often represented themes especially revered or considered miraculous, such as the antiquae madonas of the Roman basilicas. Thus a flourishing artistic market was developed, formed largely by small sacred images, of medium or high quality, whose most prestigious specimens were kept in reliquaries or framed refined, intended for a Catholic clientele not only Italian but also foreign. Among the recipients of these objects were numerous representatives of the most important noble lineages of Spain, eager to imitate the extraordinary devotion of Philip II for the relics that the monarch kept thousands in the Monastery of El Escorial and worshiped and kissed with sum reverence.
A complex ebony portable altar formed by various compartments with miniatures, sold at Sotheby's with erroneous attribution to Giovanni Battista Castello el Genovés (Genoa, 1549-1639), is nevertheless with total security the work of Francesco da Castello. The central miniature represents the Virgin of the Rosary with the Child and kneeling at her feet Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590) with various saints in adoration, among which Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Dominic are distinguished in the foreground . The central scene is surrounded by the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, at the bottom the Last Supper appears and above, at the top of the frame, the angelic Paradise, while at the angles there are the four evangelists followed by two other compartments with the apostles Pedro and Pablo.
In relation to the examples cited, the two refined miniatures of the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Crowning of Thorns are works of the full maturity of the artist, dated in the first decade of the seventeenth century, characterized by a formal simplification and pure colors in the invoice of the garments that stand out on the ebúrneas carnaciones of the characters. Among the numerous motifs comparable to those of other miniatures of Francesco da Castello, the small medallions with the Evangelists barely sketched on a golden background, remember very closely the miniatures, of small dimensions, inserted in the compartments of the altar frame with the Mysteries del Rosario, as well as those of another square with compartments with the Jesse Tree preserved in the Valencia Institute of Don Juan de Madrid, of which there is another version of the previous era and of marked flamenco influence with a reliquary framework currently in the Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia. In addition, another version of the Coronation of Thorns, of rectangular format and slightly weaker invoice, was sold in Christie's with erroneous attribution to Giovanni Battista Castello el Genovés, although the miniature must be safely attributed to the flamenco master “Romanized” Francesco da Castello .

Thanks to Ms. Elena De Laurentiis Dr. University of Genoa for conducting the study.

· Size: 23,5x28,5 cms.

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