The relics of Saint Martina were found in 1634 beneath the church of Saints Luca and Martina, which Pietro da Cortona renovated during the pontificate of Urban VIII; the painting was most likely in the Barberini Collection and made for Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the pope’s nephew, patron of the Academy and sponsor of the restoration of Saints Luca and Martina. Martina was one of the Roman virgin martyr saints who died for their faith before Christianity became the state religion under Emperor Constantine in a.d. 313. The painting combines allusions to events usually portrayed in narrative cycles. Martina refuses to sacrifice to pagan idols and kneels on the objects employed in attempts to torture her — the pyre and the iron rod used to tear her flesh. Also in the trophy-like pile are the fasces, symbol of the Roman state, and the sword eventually used to behead the saint. A tripod with flames awaits the sacrifice. Suddenly the heavens open, rays of light and cherubim appear, and a pagan idol, at the left, topples backward. The saint looks heavenward, toward the inspiring vision of paradise; she will go forward confidently to her martyrdom.
As principe of the Academy of Saint Luke, the artists’ association, Cortona undertook excavations beneath the Academy’s church, Santi Luca e Martina, beside the Roman Forum, and discovered Martina’s relics. He guarded them overnight and became devoted to her.
This painting was apparently offered to Cardinal Barberini in thanks for donations to refurbish Santi Luca e Martina. The saint kneels on a pile of instruments of martyrdom—a clawed rake to rip her flesh and the pyre on which the Romans tried to burn her. The idol to which she refused to sacrifice and the tripod for the sacrifice are toppled by lightning, to the pagans’ consternation. The sword used for her beheading lies ready on the ground.
Seventeenth-century pilgrims flocking to Rome during the Holy Years (celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church every twenty-five years) found the great churches newly linked by wide avenues thanks to the progressive urban projects of Pope Sixtus V, which made the city a model for the great capitals of Europe. The church of Saint Martina and those of other Roman virgin martyr saints of the Early Christian era were refurbished during the Catholic Reformation. As the church emphasized the primacy of Rome, these women saints, who consecrated the pagan city with their blood, took on renewed importance.
Betsy Rosasco, Research Curator of European Painting and Sculpture
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Jörg Martin Merz, ""Saint Martina Refuses to Adore the Idols:" Pietro da Cortona's painting at Princeton in context," Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 62 (2003): p. 84–104.
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Guiliano Briganti, Pietro da Cortona, o, Della pittura barocca, (Firenze: Sansoni, 1982).
An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)