St. Catherine of Alexandria’s Debate with the pagan Sages

Castile, around 1500-1510
Oil on panel
140 by 113 cm.
Provenance: Madrid, private collection; Barcelona, private collection.
Literature: González 2004, pp. 578-579 (reproduced).

The work before us here is an altarpiece compartment portraying St. Catherine’s Debate with the Pagan Sages, a subject we have already dealt with in this catalogue when studying a panel by Gonçal Peris Sarrià (cat. 3). The saint is depicted in the middle of the composition, dressed in a gold and green robe with luxurious brocade and a blue cloak. Her presence is dignified thanks to the fabric awning or cloth of honour hung behind her, executed in gold leaf and painted with floral motifs using the estofado method. The sages are arranged on each side of the throne, holding books and in debate with the saint. Some of these are standing, while others are sat on wooden benches of a semi-circular structure. At Catherine’s feet we can observe a cushion on which an open book is resting, and whose text is difficult to make out, although the first column of the left-hand page appears to read “in personis”. The saint seems to be following it, while carrying out a computatio with her fingers, a gesture in stark contrast to the vacuous gesticulatio of her opponents[1].

The room where the scene is taking place is deep with openings on both sides, through which we can see landscape and sky. The space is covered by an interesting ribbed vaulted ceiling, whose polychrome ribs are pictured in different colours. In the foreground, a multi-lobed arch supported by two pillars provides access to the space and serves to frame the scene. Its presence, along with that of the paving tiles with Moorish motifs, lends the panel an exotic appearance that seems to evoke the saint’s North African origins.

The panel was displayed in 2004 at the Los Reyes Católicos y la Monarquía de España exhibition held at Valencia’s Museo del Siglo XIX from September to November 2004[2]. Saying that, its inclusion in said event was not coupled with an appropriate approach to its style and artistic affiliation, given the exhibition catalogue listed it as by Alonso de Sedano, an attribution that is hard to justify, while also positing a number of parallels that are not valid. As such, we should absolutely rule out any possible provenance from the church of San Esteban in Burgos, as suggested there.

Its style does, however, make it quite clear this was an altarpiece compartment that came out of the painter Fernando Gallego’s immediate circle, and should be directly linked to a Martyrdom of St. Catherine preserved at the Museo del Prado (inv. P003039, 125 x 109 cm) (fig. 6 from the introductory text) since 1962, having been purchased from the Madrid-based antiques dealer Ángel Lucas[3]. The style and dimensions attest to their belonging to the same altarpiece, and the few centimetres of difference between the two is due to the fact that in the Galería Bernat panel the reserve towards the top has survived.

The close link between these two works is further borne out by the robe worn by the saint and the awning hung behind her in the panel depicting the debate, which present the same gilt work and brocade decorations, with carxofa (artichoke) motif and executed using the estofado technique, as with the robe worn by the Emperor Maxentius in the Prado panel. We observe the same reds in the clothing worn by some of the sages in our panel as in a couple of figures from its companion panel. Catherine’s face, her long wavy locks, halfway between blond and ginger, are once again common to both panels.

The compartment from the Prado has been identified, stylistically, as belonging to the circle of Fernando Gallego, although some authors, such as Camón Aznar and García Sebastián, rather optimistically attributed it to the master himself. The latter even suggested the martyrdom panel might have been the fruit of Gallego’s period in Salamanca, dating it to around 1483-1485[4]. Saying that, technical studies carried out at the time showed that the underlying drawing did not match Gallego’s normal work, which corroborated what we can surmise from the pictorial layer[5]. We can therefore conclude that the work is drawn in a manner that has much in common with what we find in the compartments depicting the Healing of Blind Bartimaeus and the Transformation of Water into Wine from the altarpiece of Ciudad Rodrigo (Salamanca), carried out by Fernando Gallego’s workshop, as was detected some years ago with the restoration of the series of panels from said altarpiece, now preserved at the Meadows Museum in Dallas[6].








[1] As indicated by González 2004, p. 578.

[2] González 2004.

[3] Sánchez Cantón 1962a, p. 306; Sánchez Cantón 1962b, p. 72.

[4] Camón 1966, p. 577, pl. XXVI-XXVII; García Sebastián 1979, p. 20, 48 and 54, fig. 46.

[5] Garrido-Cabrera 1981, pp. 43-48. Cfr. Silva 2004, p. 40.

[6] Barry 2008, pp. 200-201.

The Prado Museum table has been placed, exactly, in the circle of Fernando Gallego, although authors such as Camón Aznar or García Sebastián attributed it to the master. The latter came to consider the table of martyrdom as the work of the Salamanca period of Gallego and to place it around 1483-1485.