Portrait of St John of Avilla by Pierre Subleyras

Saint John of Avila by Pierre Subleyras (1746)

Pierre Subleyras was born in Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, a town close to Nimes in the south of France in 1699.  He was a pupil of his father and later of the French painter, Antoine Rivalz, in Toulouse. In 1726 he studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, where he was awarded the Premier Prix de Rome, which was a scholarship for arts students, principally of painting, sculpture, and architecture. It was created, initially for painters and sculptors, in 1663 in France during the reign of Louis XIV.   It was awarded annually and came with a bursary for promising artists having proved their talents by completing a very difficult elimination contest. The competition was open to the students of the Academy and starting in 1666, the award winner could win a stay of three to five years at the Palazzo Mancini in Rome paid for by the King of France.    

In 1728, Subleyras went to Rome where he received a painting commission from Frederick Christian, the Elector of Saxony, and this led to him being accepted into the Roman artists’ guild known as the Academia di San Luca.  He remained in Rome for the rest of his life and carried out many commissions for the Catholic Church.  He painted a variety of subjects, which included portraits of Pope Benedict XIV.  He also painted the portrait of the Italian priest and nobleman who was a great art collector and patron of Subleyras and who was eventually elevated to become Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga.  He painted many still-lifes, but his reputation was built around his religious paintings, which are much more serious in spirit than most French work in the Rococo period.

His most famous work is the Mass of St Basil, which he painted for St Peter’s.  The painting that served as the cartoon for this altarpiece was commissioned from Pierre Subleyras.   He was paid for the picture, which is now in S. Maria degli Angeli, Rome.  This huge picture was highly acclaimed when it was unveiled in 1748, but Subleyras died before he could follow up his success.  A modello of the work is currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

However, My Daily Art Display featured painting for today is another of Subleyras’ works.  It is his portrait of St John of Avilla which he completed in 1746 and now hangs in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.  Saint John of Avila (1500-69) is often known as the Apostle of Andalusia.  Shortly after his ordination to the priesthood, Saint John gave his family’s wealth to the poor and prepared to do missionary work in the New World. However, the Archbishop of Seville intervened, for in the wake of the release of the southern-most region of Spain from almost eight centuries from 711 to 1492 of Islamic rule, the archbishop wanted to restore and revitalize the Catholic Faith in Andalusia, and he convinced Saint John, who was a renowned preacher, to take on the task.  He remained in Andalusia for nine years and afterwards continued his missionary activities throughout Spain and is, to this day, one of the most beloved of Spanish saints.  He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII on November 12, 1893, and Saint John was canonized on May 31, 1970, by Pope Paul VI.  St John of Avila is one of the Catholic Church’s greatest heroes, even if relatively little is known about him outside Spain, where he is patron of the nation’s priests.

It is a mesmeric work with the light falling on the white vestments of St John as he stands in the pulpit holding up the cross with the crucified Christ. The long fingers of his left hand lay across his chest as he points towards the cross.   His greying hair adds to the dignity of the figure.  His dark eyes look out at us as he preaches his sermon. His black biretta lays before him on the edge of the raised pulpit.  This painting is a personification of his greatest gift – the power of oratory and it was this God-given gift that enabled him to win over the hearts of minds of the Andalusian people.