(Genoa, 1581/1582 – Venice, 1644)
Saint James the Less.
Oil on canvas, 33 ½ x 24 7/16 in (85 x 62 cm).
. L. Mortari, Bernardo Strozzi, Rome, 1966, p. 149, fig. 277.
. L. Mortari, Bernardo Strozzi, Rome: De Luca, 1995, p. 167, no. 382.
Ancient tradition holds that James the Less, one of the twelve Apostles, was a “relative” of Christ, sometimes a first cousin, at others his younger brother. Certain authors state that James closely resembled Christ, and that this was the reason that Judas Iscariot – to avoid confusion – gave his master the kiss of betrayal so as to identify him to his captors. After Peter’s departure for Rome, James became the head of the Christians in Palestine, and it for this reason that he has frequently been considered the first Bishop of Jerusalem. One day, while preaching near the Temple, he was dragged off his chair on the orders of Caiaphas, and then stoned and finally killed with a fuller’s club, which broke his skull.
It is with this attribute that Bernardo Strozzi chose to represent the young saint. A piece of sheet is tied around the top of the staff, referring to his profession, which involved beating cloth and leather. But the artist gives equal attention to the resemblance we have just mentioned between Christ and Saint James. Our painting is in fact the only known representation of Saint James the Less by Strozzi, although he had depicted Christ numerous times with these very features, and especially during his Venetian period, that is, after 1631-1632. There exists a striking drawing of this face (Head of Christ, New York, The Morgan Library & Museum) that served as a preparatory study for the painting of Christ and the Samaritan Woman in the Bob Jones University Museum in Greenville, South Carolina. As with our saint, Christ is depicted in profile, with long hair and one lock extending in front of the ear, undulating along the neck, a fine beard ending in a goatee, a partly unbuttoned shirt and parted lips.
Stylistically, our painting can be compared to two works from the artist’s first Venetian period (circa 1632-1635): The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (Moscow, Pushkin Museum) and Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter (Madison, Wisconsin, Chazen [formerly Elvehjem] Museum of Art). One can see the new delicacy of touch adopted by Strozzi as soon as he reached Venice, where he was particularly influenced by Veronese’s figures: swift brushstrokes, but quite loaded with pigment here and there, while the description of curls, beard and hair is extremely detailed. Contours of forms are less precise, and light is subdued.
However, our picture also contains passages of chiaroscuro that were typical of his Genoese period, in the bursts of light on the saint’s face and hand, contrasting with the darkness of the background and clothing. The colours are not entirely “Venetian” yet, and one can find those earth tones that were so dear to Genoese art of the seventeenth century, as well as the familiar pale flesh tones of Strozzi’s figures, highlighted with red on the cheeks in a manner at once delicate and vigorous; the whole image projects a feeling of strength, and even audacity. We should thus date this Saint James the Less to the artist’s maturity, as Luisa Mortari had suggested, shortly after his arrival in Venice, that is, in about 1631-1632.