Cardinal Francesco Seniore Barberini, Rome (?until 1679; by descent to Carlo Barberini); ?Cardinal Carlo Barberini, Rome (until 1704; possibly no. 335 in inventory of 1690s; by descent to Francesco Giuniore Barberini); ?Cardinal Francesco Giuniore Barberini, Rome (until 1738; possibly no. 239 in inventory of 1738/1739); private collection, Florence (1920s); private collection, Ohio (before 1998); Studio Novo Limited, London (in 1998; sold to Princeton University Art Museum).
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.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).