Of all the paintings by Veronese in the National Gallery, that of ‘The Vision of Saint Helena’ is certainly the one which has received least scholarly attention. The unusual subject can also be seen in a canvas by the artist now in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican (note 36), but comparison between these two works underlines two anomalous features of the National Gallery's picture – the vanishing point (and hence implied viewing position), which is below the lower edge, and the asymmetry of the composition. The painting was surely designed to be seen from below and intended as one of a pair of paintings, hanging to the right of another. It is surprising that it seems never previously to have been proposed in print that it was very probably made as one of the shutters for an organ. Such shutters painted on canvas were common in north-east Italy in the late fifteenth century and throughout the sixteenth. Many survive, although relatively few of them actually perform their original function. Some are considerably larger – for example those by Veronese which remain in S. Sebastiano in Venice or those now in the Galleria Estense, Modena, which were originally made by him for S. Geminiano, Venice (note 37) – but the size of the ‘Saint Helena’ is not very different from that of the ‘Annunciation’ formerly in the church of the Misericordia and now in the Museo Civico, Padua (a painting once frequently given to Veronese but now acknowledged as the work of Giambattista Zelotti) (note 38).
Although the imagery painted on these shutters was varied, often relating to principal saints venerated within the church, it does sometimes have some relationship to the music performed on the organ which they protected. It is possible that another dreaming saint would have faced Saint Helena and that both would have been invisible when the organ was revealed – for the music could have been incompatible with their slumber. It is not unusual for such shutters to include architectural features depicted as if seen from below, as in the ‘Annunciation’ mentioned above or, still more strikingly, the ‘David calming the Madness of Paul’, also by Zelotti and also in Padua (note 39).
Gould's catalogue entry on the painting is mainly concerned with the artist's dependence upon an engraving by a follower of Marcantonio Raimondi, which derives from an invention of Raphael's recorded in a beautiful drawing in the Uffizi which Gould believed to be by Parmigianino (note 40). Gould added that 'a relatively early dating' might be supported by the 'fact' that 'Veronese reacted as a young man to the Central Italian influences with which he would have come into contact at Mantua but seems already to have become impervious to them by the time of his visit to Rome' (note 41) (a visit was recorded by Ridolfi, who claimed that it was made in company with Girolamo Grimani who is known to have been in Rome in 1555, 1560 and 1566) (note 42). The truth is, however, that such a direct borrowing is unusual in Veronese's art at any date and that neither the colouring nor the technique of this painting can be associated with the artist's early work. Most scholars prefer a date in the 1570s (note 43).
Technique and materials
Veronese's ‘Vision of Saint Helena’ is painted on a plain weave canvas made from two pieces, a narrow strip (c. 15 cm wide) joined to a larger piece just over a metre in width which, from measurements on other Venetian paintings, appears to be the standard loom width available in Venice at this time (note 44). The canvas has been prepared with a thin gesso ground; as in many of Veronese's larger paintings, there is no ‘imprimitura’. The gesso consists of the dihydrate form of calcium sulphate (note 45), probably not as raw gypsum but as rehydrated burnt gypsum (‘gesso sottile’) (note 46).This is a practice retained from the method of preparation of earlier Venetian panels, where the ground often consists entirely of ‘gesso sottile’ (note 47).Some very sketchy drawing indicating the main forms, particularly in the drapery of Saint Helena, is visible in the infrared photograph. The photograph also reveals the only major change in the composition: the cross was originally placed at a different angle.
Like the ‘Allegories of Love’ series, ‘The Vision of Saint Helena’ is a painting which invites comparison with fresco because of its strikingly cool and grey tonality. The overall appearance is heavily influenced by the choice of blue pigment for the large area of sky; smalt has been used (note 48) and has now deteriorated to a pale yellowish-grey colour (note 49).
Saint Helena's dress is very loosely painted, with broad strokes, perhaps a technical indication that it was intended for a location where it would be seen at a distance, supporting the suggestion made above that it was an organ shutter. Similarly, the ‘Allegories’ were painted with a broad and economical technique, appropriate for their location on a ceiling, but they are more carefully executed than Saint Helena – the attention to details on jewellery and dress has already been mentioned. The comparison perhaps suggests that the broad technique of ‘The Vision of Saint Helena’ is a result of the unimportance with which Veronese regarded the commission (certainly not equal to the ‘Allegories’), rather than its location. The salmon-pink mid-tones of her overdress are a mixture of lead white and vermilion (note 50). The shadows are created by strokes of red lake of a rather purple hue. Her skirt and collar are mustard yellow, with shadows marked by the same red lake-containing paint used in the overdress.
The orange cloth on which Saint Helena sits, and which is draped over the window sill, is painted with the bright yellow mineral orpiment (note 51). It is used alone, not mixed, consistent with its reputation for incompatibility with many pigments often mentioned in treatises on painting technique (note 52). The brownish shadows are mixtures of red, yellow and brown earth pigments. The lightest highlights are lead white and lead-tin yellow of the 'type II' form (note 53), so far found only in Venetian paintings in the sixteenth century; (note 54) its warmer yellow colour relative to the 'type I' form is evident in this painting, and here it has a distinctive large and angular particle form (note 55).