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Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666)  
 
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In 1617, Guercino invented the theme of Saint Sebastian Tended by Two Angels in an exquisite painting on copper (Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire). In this small picture, he shows the wounded Sebastian being consoled by two handsome, muscular angels, rather than the traditional figures of Saint Helen and her maid. The conflation of pain and rapture in Sebastian's expression may have been inspired by Correggio's Martyrdom of Four Saints (1524, Galleria Nazionale, Parma).

Saint Sebastian Tended by Two Angels is an innovative variation upon the theme of Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels, which Guercino also painted in 1617 (now National Gallery, London). Although glowing colors and sumptuous handling of paint make these images seem beautiful, it should be noted that both Sebastian and Christ are rugged individuals, represented in a naturalistic fashion.

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Throughout his career, Guercino introduced angels (who were consistently represented as male figures in this era), even when their presence was not justified by existing accounts or the usual iconography. For instance, in Saint Gregory the Great with Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier (about 1626, National Gallery, London, on extended loan from Sir Denis Mahon), Guercino depicted Gregory, gazing at a beautiful, full length angel standing alongside his throne. As if realizing Gregory's desire, two putti embrace playfully in the heavens above him; one of the putti, who has a notably erect penis, gazes seductively down at Gregory. Guercino visualized the Vocation of Saint Luigi Gonzaga (1650, Wrightsman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in allegorical terms, with the saint ecstatically looking towards a handsome angel.

Typical distinctions between Guercino's handling of male and female figures can be observed in his Samson Captured by the Philistines (1619, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Although Baroque artists usually caricatured Delilah's ravenous sensuality and greed, Guercino has endowed her with dignity and restraint. However, he has infused Samson's figure with great sexual energy. Shimmering light sets off the straining muscles of this figure, who fills much of the picture surface.

In 1620, Guercino received (again with Mirandola's help) his most important commission to date: Saint William Receiving the Monastic Habit (now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna), a monumental altarpiece for the church of San Gregorio, Bologna. Through flickering effects of light and shade, boldly twisted poses, and other devices, he infused this scene with a sense of great dramatic power. As he would do in many later works, he enhanced the emotional mood by showing male figures (such as the prominent soldier and monk in the right foreground) gazing longingly at one another. Of course, one could assume that these figures are engaged in mutual contemplation of the spiritual significance of the event. Nevertheless, their interaction seems to have an erotic "edge" to it.

The altarpiece for San Gregorio attracted the attention of Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, Archbishop of Bologna, who called Guercino to Rome shortly after he was elected Pope on February 8, 1621, assuming the name Gregory XV.

In 1621, as a result of the new pope's commission, Guercino undertook Aurora, a fresco covering the ceiling of the Casino Ludovisi, a pavilion in the gardens of the Ludovisi family estate in Rome. This depiction of the goddess of the dawn, driving her chariot across the heavens, developed the possibilities of Baroque illusionism to a new extreme.

In a similarly bold and dynamic style, Guercino painted the Saint Chrysogonus in Glory, an oil painting originally inset on the ceiling of the church dedicated to that saint in Rome (1622, now Lancaster House, London). Although the Ludovisi sought to monopolize most of Guercino's creative energies, Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a strong promoter of an exuberant Baroque style, succeeded in obtaining Guercino's services for this project.

Chrysogonus is seen from below, as he is carried up to heaven by five putti. The saint gazes up ecstatically at two beautiful angels, who await him in heaven. As is the case with many of his other religious paintings, the presence of the angels is justified neither by accounts of the saint nor by pictorial tradition. A man who loved other men, Scipione Borghese undoubtedly would have appreciated Guercino's interpretation of this scene.

Pope Gregory entrusted Guercino with the decoration of the Loggia delle Benedizioni above the main entrance to Saint Peter's. This would have been an immense undertaking, but little had been done on the project before Gregory's untimely death on July 8, 1623.

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