The Page-Boy and the Wrong Shadow. Observations on Paolo Veronese’s Pala di Sant'Antonio Abate

Stefan Neuner

… the saints no more breathe celestial air. They are on our own plain ground…
(John Ruskin)[1]

Abb. 1Fig. 1

Something’s not quite right. We can see, from the Bishop’s majestic head, that the artist undoubtedly put the painting’s source of illumination above and to the right. (Fig. 1) The highlights are on the right side of the face, while the left side is in shadow. A shadow falls to the left of the church dignitary along the marble face of the niche, in front of which he is seated. However, the head and the shadow don’t match. His head sports a mitre, but his silhouette on the wall shows no trace of this garb. How should we interpret this?
  The detail comes from an altarpiece painted by Paolo Veronese circa 1570[2] for the Church of Sant'Antonio Abate, which once formed part of a Benedictine convent on the southernmost island of the Torcello archipelago. The canvas, now part of the Pinacoteca di Brera’s collection in Milan, graced the church’s main altar until the abbey was disbanded in 1810.[3]

Abb. 2Fig. 2

The dignity of his situation does not seem to mesh very well with other peculiarities in the painting that jump to the eye. To begin with, there are the two boys who – one holding a cross-staff and the other, holding open a liturgical book – are performing the role of altar boys, but who are wearing secular clothing. Even more surprising is the fact that the person presiding over this "sacra conversazione," Saint Anthony, has a furrowed brow and an expression that can readily be interpreted as one of anger. Who would dare beseech the intercession of this stern patriarch in their prayers? Who would feel emboldened to call on saints in the way that the three figures gathered here have overtly given all their attention to reading the book that is held before them? The fact the boy peeks out from underneath it – not without a coquettish undertone – at the female viewers of the painting (the cloister was a nunnery) doesn’t help matters. What in the world is going on here?
  I am going to have to make a considerable digression to suggest an answer to this question. Let’s start with the two boys. Their inclusion in the composition has a dual origin in Veronese’s work. On the one hand, we can find similar figures in narrative paintings dating to slightly before or after 1570. They appear as juvenile nobili or page-boys mostly as part of secular parades, for example in The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–67, London, National Gallery), The Adoration of the Virgin by the Coccina Family (around 1572, Dresden, Old Masters Gallery), or the Feast of St. Gregory the Great (1572, Vicenza, Madonna di Monte Berico). Veronese had already introduced the figure of an acolyte almost ten years before, in a gathering of saints. There too, his task is to hold up a book for the two saints, Geminianus and Servus, but he still wears the clothing befitting his ecclesiastical role. (Fig. 3)
  Both of these figures of Veronese’s pictorial imagination – page and altar boy – are merged in the youngsters in the Pala di S. Antonio Abate. As Peter Humfrey noted, we can take the one in front as an original variation of a long-standing motif in the history of altar painting: the putti that often populate the bottom of a painting, where they do not always share the same devotion expressed by the rest of the painting around them.[4] Usually they are playing music. Often they peer out at the viewer or – when conceived as infants – they may skylark. The figure of the angel allows these youth to bring such cute or comical details to the painting without compromising the religious image’s decorum. Wearing a page’s clothes, such a figure appears to be shown as what such an entertaining detail in an altarpiece has always potentially suggested: as a foreign body of secular provenance. This circumstance carries even more weight when the boy – unlike his angelic ancestors, who mostly just stand in attendance at such "sacre conversazioni" – is narratively linked through his "supporting role" to the painting’s protagonists.
  The well-known "sacra conversazione" model of altarpiece, of which the Pala di S. Antonio Abate is an example, contains problems of coherence of content by its very nature. What the painter was supposed to depict in such a painting was a group of holy personages whose combination was often derived from contingent circumstances. Therefore, as far as we can judge, St. Anthony is not presiding over the composition because Veronese’s clients were particularly devoted to this saint. He is the main focus of the pala because the abbatial church of these Benedictine nuns was consecrated to him. But the fane had already existed with this patrocinium before a convent was added. In the 13th century, the nuns fled to the lagoon to escape the warfare that had gripped the mainland. Their traditional dwelling in Mestre was devoted to Saint Cyprian of Carthage, whom they continued to worship in Torcello. This is why he appears on the right side of the painting. On the other hand, he is to the left of Saint Cornelius, because also a relic of this martyr was placed inside the church’s main altar.[5]
  Veronese places these figures in this painting in front of an architectural backdrop reminiscent of a sacred space. Herein he follows in principle an authoritative tradition, harkening back to Giovanni Bellini’s altarpieces. This design connotes a place in the hereafter or an idea that can be symbolized as such: a throne room in a heavenly Jerusalem or the abstract conception of the ecclesia triumphans[6], envisioned as a place where the community of saints exists out of time expecting the invocations of believers. If this design imparts a sense of coherence to the scene, it does not necessarily mean that the place represented is the site of an action, as the anachronistic expression "sacra conversazione" would suggest. Art history certainly fell upon this, as painters went to great lengths to confer a kind of coherence to this type of composition that transcended the unity of place. When the Virgin and Child appear in the painting, there may be introduced a communicative interaction between the figures through gestures and expressions that is reminiscent of the notion of intercession.
  While artists limited themselves in the early development of the "sacra conversazione" to hint at narrative moments, in the later Cinquecento painters sighted the aesthetic ideal of a dramatically staged action even where no narrative subjects had to be treated. As concerns the Venetian "sacra conversazione," it is Titian who set a precedent: in the Pala Gozzi (painted in 1520 for the church of S. Francesco ad Alto in Ancona) he moved the Holy Virgin and Child in a glory over the heads of the saints (and of the donor), transforming her appearance into an event that the figures beneath react to with fierce movements and dramatic gestures. The altarpiece depicts a vision. The sight of an opening in the heavens is a narrative impulse that affects all the figures and directs them to a center.
  Veronese’s Pala di S. Antonio Abate is an exact reversal of this conception of the altarpiece. Here too there is a visual activity to which the figures devote themselves: the three saints all look at the book that is held up for them. However, this rendering does not center the composition in a heavenly realm, rather in the here and now. This idea comes from the work that we already referred to. However, the painting in which the altar boy makes his first appearance was not conceived as an altarpiece; instead, it was originally affixed to the outer sides of the doors of an organ case in the Venetian church of San Geminiano (demolished under Napoleon).

Abb. 3Fig. 3

Nevertheless, Veronese modeled his design on the traditional format of the "sacra conversazione," because in this case too he had to paint a gathering of saints. As the work was made to occupy a place high above the entrance to the sacristy in the left transept and not one for celebrating mass and prayer, the work provided Veronese with the opportunity to play with this type of compositional schema. First of all, he decided not to interpret the familiar backdrop of the "Sacra Conversazione in an Architecture" (Hans Aurenhammer)[7] as a celestial structure where little angels flutter about any longer, instead designating an earthly church space by means of an altar boy. Of course, this was motivated by the circumstance that the painting with Saints Geminianus and Servus should have two representatives of episcopal dignity. Then, he did not relate the two saints to a strong, lofty, elevated center (a Madonna on a throne or in a glory) but to weak and, given his situation, even comical character. Wedged in between two pushing bodily masses, this "Servant of Two Masters" appears to be mixed up in an awkward situation. One has the feeling that his eyes wander from one éminence grise to the other as if he didn’t know for whom he is supposed to be holding the book. The opportunity of rendering this object in its precise place probably prompted the invention of this figure. In fact the book clearly echoes the two-part, folding support for the painting. At the same time, its spine is critically near the gap between the two wings – "critically" because this close relationship tends to emphasize the joint rather than hide it. We can actually say the same of the boy who holds up the book. His situation, namely being forced to divide his attention between the two men of the church, figures the fact that in his place along the gap between the two halves of the picture he gets into a literally divisive position. And his unease seems to be due to the circumstance, as he faces the inescapable destiny of being bisected as soon as the organ case is opened.[8]
  The Pala di S. Antonio Abate provides a variation on this twist to the "sacra conversazione." In order to understand the painting’s conceits, we should perhaps note once more that the altar boy’s dichotomy on the organ doors from San Geminiano is also related to a dispute over rank between the two saints at which Veronese hints. The figure on the left, Saint Geminianus, is the patron of the church, and even though his ecclesiastical position equals that of his colleague, Saint Servus, he is reserved the right to present himself to us crowned with the insignia of the mitre. He is also holding a book in his hand, but does not seem to be satisfied with a single reading matter. Instead his gaze floats to the other tome that has wandered over more into his half of the picture, albeit Saint Servus, with folded hands, appears to be shown in the act of deciphering a prayer in it.[9] The same is true of the altarpiece from the church in the Benedictine convent. Here we have three highly decorated men of the cloth all trying to read from the same book. And here too there seem to be difficulties in reading, at least for Saint Cyprian and Saint Anthony, who stand the farthest from the tome. One raises his eyebrows and the other frowns. Both faces reveal tension, even displeasure at the fact that the book is in an even more awkward position than in the painting of San Geminiano. Veronese provides two possible explanations for this. The first, obvious one is that the boy who is supposed to hold the book up is not doing a very good job of it, because he is too busy exchanging glances with the picture’s viewing public. In order to uncover the other one, we have to dig a little deeper. When we look the book more closely, we discover that one of the two open pages isn’t lying flat; instead it looks as if it has just been lifted up and is about to be turned.

Abb. 4Fig. 4

Saint Cornelius is either turning the pages for the other two readers, or he is reading ahead without minding the other two. If he is in the process of turning the page, this explains why Cornelius is leaning slightly forward, just enough to obstruct a clear view of the pages for the most eminent personality in this gathering. If we are correct in sensing a touch of anger in the face of the main figure, this must be the reason for it.
  Saint Cornelius is also getting in Saint Anthony’s way in another sense. There are disputes over rank between the protagonists of the Pala di S. Antonio Abate as well, though not as subtle. Veronese makes it obvious that there exits a discrepancy between the position of the saints within the Church’s hierarchy and that in the painting’s composition. Saint Anthony is granted his position of honor only because of his patronage of this church and its main altar. As a pope, Saint Cornelius actually outranks him. Even Bishop Cyprian is above him in the hierarchy of church officials. To be sure, the hermit and ascetic who fled the institutions of the church is not entitled to wear the pontificals. This is also hinted at by the fact that the Egyptian monk merely threw the magnificent cope over his simple habit visible underneath, which he did not exchange for a surplice.[10] Even the inaccurate shadow is telltale, divesting Saint Anthony again of the pontifical regalia that he has likewise just barely appropriated in this instance. And if the pope had to remove his tiara before him (and even lay it at his feet) to acknowledge the prerogative enjoyed by the saintly hermit at this altar, then it is his denuded head that best fits the enigmatic shadow above. The positioning of the great hermit in bishop’s vestments above the heads of these high church officials is dubious. Veronese makes it clear that the role that Saint Anthony occupies in this pala is one only assigned to him by the painter’s concetto. This entails yet again reinterpreting the "sacra conversazione" as a scene playing out in an ecclesiastical here and now, spiced with a brief anecdotal narrative and an abundant sense of humor.
  The painter’s wit we can also detect in the fact that the brief narrative playing out between the figures is closely related to the formal choices that he made and that it even comments on them. In other instances, even in pale installed on main altars that were, therefore, fully frontally visible, the painter clearly modified the picture’s traditional symmetric composition. For example, in the Church of San Sebastiano, he did this by using architectural elements placed off-center and by concentrating the figures in the left side of the painting. This corresponded to the tastes of the Cinquecento. Instead, in S. Antonio Abate, Veronese has at first glance returned in a seemingly archaic fashion to the rigid format of bilateral symmetry: the throne niche in which Saint Anthony sits is depicted frontally. The altar’s patron occupies the vertical center, flanked by the bystanders with two majestic columns towering above them, which frame the composition in the upper half. The precise placement of the winged cherub’s head adorning the throne’s pedestal repeats on a small scale the harmonious symmetry along the axis dividing the painting. As a representation of second degree, it recalls the heavenly places that similarly painted architectural settings originally typified. And it admonishes the motivic ascendancy of the whimsical page-boy, whose head, together with the book it supports, echoes the cherub’s outstretched wings. It is the positioning of his figure that upsets the balance of the composition. There are two possible explanations for such a positioning.  First, one can well imagine that both the knaves, dressed as page-boys, are first and foremost at Pope Cornelius’ service (one of them has even taken his ferula from him). The slight formal imbalance thus embodies the aforementioned hierarchical imbalance between the saints. On the other hand, returning to the cross-eyed distraction of the boy holding the book, we can also readily imagine that he shifted from the middle position required for the joint reading. The cherub head marks this worthy place. A propensity to coquetry leads the boy to turn away from this spot. It is, thus, fully appropriate that Veronese has dressed him in secular clothing. The garment seems to express Veronese’s awareness that through this figure, he is nudging religious painting towards something perhaps overly mundane.[11] It is ultimately the painter who, through this profane extra, flirts with the curiosity of his viewers.[12] Did he use the remote location of the abbey church on Torcello to turn this new page in altar painting? In any case, Veronese brushes up against a boundary in this canvas that, as we know, in the eyes of a tribunal of the Inquisition he will have crossed elsewhere shortly thereafter. And what about the Benedictine nuns? Did they object to this pala being placed on their main altar? We know nothing about it. However, we can likely assume that it was a mark of significant prestige for this insignificant convent to have hired the celebrated painter for their commission. And if we can assume that, then we can impute motives to the nuns (or some donator in the background) that are not merely pious. Perhaps they gave the painter carte blanche.



Fig. 1, 2, 4
Paolo Veronese, Pala di S. Antonio Abate (ca. 1570), Oil on canvas, 270 x 180 cm, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
© 2015 Pinacoteca di Brera, Mailand

Fig. 3
Paolo Veronese, Die Hll. Geminianus und Servus (ca. 1560), Oil on canvas, 341 x 240 cm, Modena, Galleria Estense
© 2015 Galleria Estense, Modena


[1] John Ruskin, "Modern Painters. Volume V," in: The Works of John Ruskin, ed. by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols., London 1903–1912 , vol. 7, p. 290.

[2] A document dated February 5, 1569 more veneto (1570) and attesting to a payment, among other things, for gold leaf work on the main altar at S. Antonio Abate provides a clue as to the date; see Rodolfo Gallo, "Cinque quadri ignoti del Veronese alla mostra di Venezia", in: Ateneo veneto, 125 (4), April 1939, pg. 200. For other other proposal for the dating of the painting see Terisio Pignatti and Filippo Pedrocco, Veronese. L'opera completa, 2 vols., Milan 1995, vol. 1, pgs. 138f., Cat. No. 105.

[3] See Alvise Zorzi, Venezia scomparsa, 2 vols., Milan 1977, vol. 2, pg. 434. A description of the church is contained in the acts of 1678, which record the visits to the church by Bishop Jacopo Vianoli, published in facsimile form in Maurizia Vecchi, Chiese e monasteri medioevali scomparsi della laguna superiore di Venezia. Ricerche storico-archeologice, Rome 1983, pgs. 47ff.

[4] See Peter Humfrey, Cat. La pittura veneta del rinascimento a Brera, trans. by Tania Gargiulo, Florence 1990, pg. 192, Cat. No. 45.

[5] See Flaminio Corner, Notizie storiche delle chiese e monasteri di Venezia e di Torcello, Padua 1758, pgs. 585ff.

[6] On the relation between ecclesiastical concepts and the Venetian "sacra conversazione," see Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, New Haven/London 1993, pg. 68.

[7] See Hans Aurenhammer, Studien zu Altar und Altarbild der venezianischen Renaissance. Form, Funktion und historischer Kontext, Dissertation: University of Vienna, 1985, pgs. 58ff.

[8] On similar motives in Caravaggio and the problem of divisions in painting, see Wolfram Pichler, "Caravaggio oder die Malerei des Zwiespalts", in: 31. Das Magazin des Instituts für Theorie,  No. 14–15: Die Figur der Zwei / The Figure of Two, pgs. 31–39.

[9] Perhaps the different handling of the bishops is explained not only by the fact the Saint Geminianus was the patron of this church, therefore a figure of special significance to the place, but also by the fact that Veronese modeled his portrait of Saint Servus on the priest of the church of Saint Geminianus, Benedetto Manzini, who in essence did not merit the bishop’s insignia. For the identification of the portrait, see Xavier F. Salomon, Exhibit Catalog Veronese, London, National Gallery, 19/3–15/6/2014, London 2014, pg. 98.

[10] The same is true of the organ doors of San Geminiano, where, under the cope and rochet that Saint Severus has put or thrown on, we can make out the black cloth of a priest’s gown. See Paola Marini and Bernard Aikema (Ed.), Exhibition Catalog, Paolo Veronese. L'illusione della realtà, Verona, Palazzo della Gran Guardia, 5/7–5/10/2014, Milan 2014, pg. 134, Cat. No. 2.6a–c (Claudia Terribile).

[11] In both late altarpieces depicting the figure of a pageboy holding up a book, this figure is merely a small, decorative element: the pala from the Cappella S. Lorenzo in S. Giacomo dell'Orio (around 1573, see Pignatti/Pedrocco [note 1], vol. 1, p. 297, Cat. No. 201) and the lost, frescoed altarpiece from the Cuccina Family Chapel in S. Francesco della Vigna (after 1574, see Blake de Maria, Becoming Venetian. Immigrants and the Arts in Early Modern Venice, New Haven/London 2010, pgs. 81–85).

[12] The reference in Ridolfi to the vanity that the painter himself supposedly expressed in his elaborate dress for that time seems appropriate in this setting, see Sergio Marinelli (Ed.): Exhibition Catalog, Veronese e Verona, Verona: Museo di Castelvecchio, 7/7/–9/10/1988, Verona 1988, pg. 242, Cat. No. 17 (Sergio Marinelli).

Stefan Neuner is an art historian at NCCR Iconic Criticism, University of Basel/ETH Zurich

Translation: Claudio Cambon