Guercino, St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin

Guercino, St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin, oil on canvas, 1652-53 (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City)

Dr. David Drogin: [0:00] Here we are looking at Guercino’s painting of “St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child,” or “St. Luke at the Easel.” This is an interesting painting to talk about from several respects.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:14] Luke was one of the four Evangelists…

[0:17] [crosstalk]

Dr. Harris: [0:18] Matthew, Mark, Luke and John…

[0:20] [crosstalk]

Dr. Drogin: [0:20] Luke was one of the four Evangelists, writing one of the four Gospels that makes up the Christian Bible.

Dr. Harris: [0:27] He was also a painter.

Dr. Drogin: [0:27] He was also believed to be a painter. Christians of the time, and some today, believe that he had actually painted firsthand images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. He, for that reason, is also the patron saint of artists. He was mostly known as being an Evangelist, but was also thought of as being a painter, according to tradition.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] You know, it makes me think about the whole Christian tradition of making images, and this desire to have the image connect directly to Christ, and the apostles, and to Mary, and not to have any distance between the image and the reality.

Dr. Drogin: [1:09] Absolutely. This painting is interesting from that respect in that it shows Luke as an artist.

[1:14] We also see in the background this inkwell with the cow, or bull — that is, the allegorical symbol for St. Luke — sitting on top of a book, which we have to assume is the Gospel of St. Luke, one of the books of the Bible. It shows him in this dual respect, and in that sense it’s almost a rather traditional representation of St. Luke.

[1:35] But it’s also interesting because we could talk about this as a very good example of Baroque painting from the 17th century — this is from the 1650s — because as in other Baroque paintings that had started developing in the late 1500s, we have very naturalistic figures, a sense of classicizing figures and architecture and clothing.

[1:56] Everything is relatively simple. There’s not a lot of things going on in the painting. We have large figures in the foreground. There’s not a lot of distracting things in the background. There’s a rational sense of space, and depth, and light, and so on. For all these respects, it — formally speaking — is a pretty traditional Baroque painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] Right, that makes sense.

Dr. Drogin: [2:16] What’s maybe most interesting about this painting is how we can also think of it to a certain extent as a Counter-Reformation painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] Re-affirming the importance of images for the church?

Dr. Drogin: [2:28] Absolutely. For the Catholic Church, we can think of this painting as a response that the Catholics are giving toward the Protestant Reformation.

[2:36] For many decades — at this point, for over a hundred years — the Protestant church, especially in Northern Europe, had been criticizing the Catholics for many aspects of their devotion and religious practice, but one of the main targets of the Protestant critics was religious art.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] In fact, religious images were being destroyed in Protestant countries.

Dr. Drogin: [2:55] In some parts, they were going around, tearing paintings down, gouging out sculptures’ eyes, smashing and destroying things.

Dr. Harris: [3:02] Destroying images of saints.

Dr. Drogin: [3:02] Exactly. Because, generally speaking, the criticism was that art was not good, according to the Protestants, for religious purposes because it was distracting. You would be distracted by the artist’s skill, or the beauty of the painting, or the eroticism of the figures.

Dr. Harris: [3:17] You could even be fooled into worshiping the image itself instead of the ideas behind the image.

Dr. Drogin: [3:24] The Protestants said that was a great, great danger, that you would be so astounded by a painting by Leonardo that you would end up worshiping the image more than the message it was trying to convey.

Dr. Harris: [3:33] That does happen. People worship images and think that they have magical powers.

Dr. Drogin: [3:37] Absolutely. Rather than images, the Protestants had said, the primary focus of your devotion, the primary tool for devotion in religious meditation, should instead be text, the word of the actual Bible itself.

Dr. Harris: [3:51] Just saying that, in and of itself, is an attack on the Church. One of the things that they were saying was that the Church, in all of its practices and rituals, had gotten away from what Christ actually wrote in the Bible, and encouraged a going back and a close reading of the real text, not just listening to the words of the priests and the practices of the Church.

Dr. Drogin: [4:14] Right. Saying that the authority was the text itself, what was written about Christ, rather than some pope or archbishop telling you what to think.

Dr. Harris: [4:21] It was a pretty radical thing to say.

Dr. Drogin: [4:22] It was very radical. That’s why they got in so much trouble originally.

Dr. Harris: [4:25] Big trouble. [laughs]

Dr. Drogin: [4:25] In any case, after decades of this Protestant criticism, and the Protestant churches, the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and so on, are growing stronger and stronger, the Catholic Church needed to formulate its response.

[4:35] Beginning in the mid-1500s — this is the period known as the Counter-Reformation — one of the things that the Catholics do in the Counter-Reformation is…

Dr. Harris: [4:43] The Counter-Reformation means “against the Reformation.”

Dr. Drogin: [4:46] Exactly. It’s the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. Some people even call it the Catholic Reformation, rather than the Protestant Reformation.

[4:55] One of the main points of the Catholic Counter-Reformation is that they’re justifying the use of art. They’re saying that art is an important religious tool. One of the most straightforward reasons that they claimed it was was that, of course, even though literacy had grown tremendously, still, most people did not know how to read.

[5:14] The Catholics respond to the Protestants, “How can we tell people that the Bible is their main devotional tool if they can’t even read, and if books are still relatively rare objects?”

[5:25] Instead, they say — the Catholics — that religious images, altarpieces in churches, devotional images in your house, these are more useful than books because everyone can understand what they’re about. They’re immediately accessible. You don’t have to know how to read.

[5:39] And as some people still say today, a picture can be worth a thousand words. You can communicate things with images that are impossible to communicate with written words on the page.

[5:48] So, here in this painting, what we have is not only a celebration of a painter, St. Luke, according to Catholic belief, but this is really a very pointed, a very rhetorical defense of painted religious images. It even suggests that painting is even more important than the written word. Let’s talk about how we see that in this painting.

[6:11] Of course, we have St. Luke sitting at the easel with his palette and brushes. Look how he turns, looks at the viewer, and gestures towards his painting of the Virgin and Child, as if to say, “Look at what I’m doing. This is what I’m painting.”

[6:25] In the background, we have an angel looking over his shoulder, looking pleasantly at the painting, representing divine approbation, as if God and the angels in heaven is looking on approvingly as St. Luke is painting this painting.

Dr. Harris: [6:39] Just like God inspired the Gospels, so God inspired the paintings in a way.

Dr. Drogin: [6:45] Absolutely, or at least approves of them. But then, what else do we see in the painting? Remember, of course, in a Baroque painting, nothing is included accidentally or for no reason. When we look over at the right side, as we mentioned, there’s this inkwell on the book.

Dr. Harris: [6:59] He’s turned his back on them.

Dr. Drogin: [7:00] The pen is in the inkwell. The book is closed. There’s this weight on top of it. As you said, he’s literally turned his back on the written word in order to focus on the painting.

Dr. Harris: [7:10] When you look at this, and you think Mary and the Christ Child, and this devotional image to inspire prayer. You think, which is going to inspire prayer, this? [laughs] Or, well, this works for me.

Dr. Drogin: [7:23] Exactly, it’s a very, very rhetorical image. We need to understand this painting in terms of the dialogue, the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics in terms of the Protestants saying “focus on the text” and the Catholics defending the use of images.

[7:38] We should also add that the Protestants liked St. Luke quite a lot, even though generally they were a little bit averse to the cult of saints. They did like St. Luke as well as the other Evangelists because he was a writer. Here we have the Catholics celebrating him as a painter.

[7:54] It’s as if they’re saying, “Look, Protestants, you like St. Luke. You think he’s a great hero because he was a writer, but he was also a painter. Therefore, you cannot criticize painting” because one of the great heroes of the church was a painter and made religious images, according to their belief.

Dr. Harris: [8:11] It’s the church continually needing to justify — throughout its history, at different moments — the use of images and their power. This image speaks to that so perfectly.

Dr. Drogin: [8:25] It’s a very good example of that.

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. David Drogin, "Guercino, St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin," in Smarthistory, November 13, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,