Antiques -
Reference: Z6696

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

This precious couple by Agnus Dei is made up of two oval miniatures on parchment representing the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Crowning with Thorns, framed by contemporary frames of perforated silver sheet, on a background of blue taffeta, inscribed in turn in frames of ebonized wood. Four medallions with miniatures of the Evangelists on a gold background are included in the corners of both trimmed silver frames, while four angelic heads and three silver rosettes are respectively applied in the center of the side margins. The two central miniatures, perfectly preserved, represent a joyous and a painful episode in the life of Jesus Christ. The first shows the Holy Family surrounded by shepherds in an adoring attitude, offering presents to the Child Jesus. The shepherd in the foreground, kneeling with his back to the viewer, rests one hand on a wide-brimmed hat and offers a basket with the other. Another shepherd gives him a sheep with tied legs, symbol of the Christian sacrificial lamb, while a third plays the pan accompanied by four other characters and a dog with a long snout. The scene takes place in the open air, next to a stable from which the ox and the donkey poke their heads, before a landscape of hills with the ruins of a temple. In the upper central part, an angel in luminous glory holds a phylactery with the text "Glory [...]". The Virgin tenderly shows those present the Child wrapped in a white cloth, while Joseph leans on a pillar behind her. The miniature, brightly colored and enhanced with chrysographs, bears in its lower area the characteristic mound of dark earth with a sprig, an unmistakable signature of the artist that appears in all his miniatures of landscape settings.
The Crowning with Thorns is an episode in the Passion cycle that follows that of the flagellation and precedes that of Ecce Homo, after which Christ was led to the crucifixion. The scene takes place in a courtyard, in the center of which Jesus, seated on a dais and clad in a purple cloak illuminated with chrysographs, wears the crown of thorns and holds a reed in one hand as a scepter. Two soldiers fit the crown on the head of Christ with two reeds that, when crossed, form the symbol of the cross, making his forehead bleed, while another henchman 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 indoors.
Both miniatures, of great artistic quality, are undoubtedly the work of Francesco da Castello, the 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 very soon specialized 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 himself, and delighting him to work small, to what he felt inclined, the genius led him in that direction, becoming a good miniaturist, and he made beautiful works, which went to Spain, as he also worked for various personages and great princes, and carried out things that brought him great praise. He painted equally 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 did excellently, and they were paid to him 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 ”(cfr. G. Baglione, Le Vite de 'Pittori ..., Rome 1642, pp. 86-87 ).

In Rome, Francesco da Castello developed a brilliant career, he was portrayed by Hendrick Goltzius and associated with important Flemish characters and scholars, including Philips van Winghe, Abraham Ortelius and Hendrick de Raeff of Delft, called Enrico Corvino, who in 1603 married a his daughter Caterina. Attached to the Congregation of the Virtuosos of the Pantheon, from 1577 he was a member of the Academy of San Lucas, of which he was consul in 1588 and 1591.
His house soon became a meeting place for artists where many of his compatriots found hospitality and a valuable reference point to enter the Roman environment. In addition, together with Francesco da Castello they learned "the good way to paint small", appropriating the essential features of the master's style, as Baglione tells about his German disciple Sigismondo Laire (ca. 1552-1639), who specialized in "coloring small figures in copper" and that "he painted on various jewels, such as lapis lazuli, agates, emeralds, carnelian, and other things" (cfr. ibidem, p. 353).
From this news it is clear that Francesco da Castello was an artist appreciated by his contemporaries and well integrated into the Roman artistic and cultural environment.
In recent years, the catalog of the works of the Flemish artist, known above all for his large altar blades, has been increased with new miniatures kept in museums and private collections around the world. Among its most beautiful miniatures we must mention the Adoration of the Magi at the Lázaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid, characterized by fiery 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 thirteenth-century fresco of the Annunciation in the church of the Holy Annunciation in Florence, of which the face of the Virgin, which according to tradition had been painted by angels, it was particularly revered and regarded as miraculous. In the middle of the 15th century, the sacred image acquired a special value for the Medicis, who prohibited its reproduction at least until the early eighties of the 16th century, when due to the continuous requests by influential figures of the time, permission was granted to copy it. In 1584 Alessandro Allori painted a replica of it commissioned by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, to be sent as a gift to Felipe II of Spain, which is still preserved today in the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
A delightful image of the Guardian 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 possessed it. The cult of the saints, ratified in the 25th and last session of the Council of Trent (1563), had firmly spread the belief that their intercession increased when reciting prayers in the presence of their relics or their images, especially if the latter they had been in contact with his 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 sparked a desire in the powerful for numerous relics and increased the production of devotional images that often depicted subjects especially revered or considered miraculous, such as the antiquae madonnas of Roman basilicas. Thus developed a flourishing art market, largely made up of small, medium- or high-quality sacred images, the most prestigious specimens of which were kept in reliquaries or refinedly framed, 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 Felipe II for the relics that the monarch kept by thousands in the Monastery of El Escorial and that he adored and kissed with great reverence.
A complex portable ebony altar made up of various compartments with miniatures, sold at Sotheby's with the wrong attribution to Giovanni Battista Castello the Genoese (Genoa, 1549-1639), is nevertheless surely the work of Francesco da Castello. The central miniature represents the Virgin of the Rosary with the Child and Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-1590) kneeling at her feet with various saints in adoration, among which Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Dominic stand out in the foreground. . The central scene is surrounded by the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, in the lower part the Last Supper appears and above, at the top of the frame, the angelic Paradise, while in the angles 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 with Thorns are works of the artist's full maturity, dating from the first decade of the 17th century, characterized by a formal simplification and by pure colors in the invoice of the garments that stand out on the eburine flesh of the characters. Among the many motifs that are comparable to those of other miniatures by Francesco da Castello, the small medallions with the Evangelists barely outlined on a golden background closely recall the miniatures, of reduced dimensions, inserted in the compartments of the altar frame with the Mysteries del Rosario, as well as those of another box with compartments with the Tree of Jesé conserved in the Institute of Valencia de Don Juan de Madrid, of which there is another version from an earlier period and of marked flamenco influence with a frame-reliquary currently in the Museum of Fine Arts of Valencia. Furthermore, another version of the Coronation with Thorns, rectangular in shape and slightly weaker in invoice, was sold at Christie's with the wrong attribution to Giovanni Battista Castello the Genovés, although the miniature must surely be attributed to the “romanized” Flemish master Francesco da Castello .

Thanks to Dña. Elena De Laurentiis Dra. University of Genoa for carrying out the study.

· Size: 23,5x28,5 cms.

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