Painters, religious art

Holy Family with St Catherine of Alexandria by Lavinia Fontana

The Holy Family is a subject that became popular in art in the early 16th century, it consists mainly of the Child Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, but sometimes the artists added other important figure of the Christianity, such as St Baptist, Saint Elizabeth or Saint Catherine of Alexandria. However, the veneration of the Holy Family was formally begun during the 17th century by the first bishop of New France, François de Laval, who founded a confraternity.

It was a popular subject in Dutch, Flemish and Italian Renaissance, especially in painting. The popularity of this subject was associated with an increased interest in the figure of Saint Joseph, as well as the extension of devotion to him. The confraternities dedicated to St Joseph were part of revived devotional interest.

In Italy, there are several examples of the subject by artists such as Mantegna, Correggio, Michelangelo or Lorenzo Lotto, who have painted one with Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Lotto reproduced the subject several times adding angles and saints to produce different versions of the sacra conversazione.

Lavinia Fontana was one of the most successful female artists of the Italian Renaissance. Her practice was centred on portraits of Bologna’s aristocracy. But she was also one of the few women who dared to paint religious and mythological subjects in her time, which was very unusual. But she did not want just to paint religious themes, she also had the intention to participate in the Counter Reformation movement.

This is a fine example of sacra conversazione, and it is among her most accomplished works. However, in this painting there is a softness, a clear influence of Correggio and Raphael, which sets it apart from many other of her paintings in which she continued the decorative and the stiff manner she inherited form her father.

The Holy Family with St Catherine of Alexandria by Lavinia Fontana (1582)

It is very interesting to see how in this painting Fontana is clearly attempting to reform the Mannerist tradition, she was following the recommendations of Cardinal Paleotti, by introducing through emotional interaction and expressive gestures the kind of art capable of “moving the spirit”. Paleotti wrote a treatise in 1592, Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane, which was a manual intended to explain the clarity and the simplicity required by the Concil of Trent in the treatment of religious images.


  • This painting was acquired by the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, but it is not currently on public view.