Saint CatherineCa. 1510. Oil on panel, 212 x 112 cm.
This is one of the Spanish Renaissance’s most emblematic depictions of a female figure and the best known of Yáñez de la Almedina’s works. Both considerations are due to the visibility this work has received at the Museo del Prado, where it has been one of the essential icons in its galleries of 16th-century Spanish painting ever since it arrived in 1946. According to Jacopo de la Vorágine’s The Golden Legend, Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a young, wise and virtuous princess who loved the Lord. That beautiful young woman reject marrying emperor Maximilian and was therefore subjected to a long martyrdom that included the amputation of both breasts, torture on the wheel, and decapitation. The different episodes of this legend were assiduously depicted, often as narrative sequences in which the faithful could follow the saint’s heroic vicissitudes. This form of representation perfected in the Gothic era persisted in Spain throughout the 16th century, but Yáñez, who fully adopted the new formulas of the Italian Renaissance, opted to depict Saint Catherine without narrative components, suggesting them only through her attributes: the sword that decapitated her, the palm leaf of martyrdom and the book that alludes to her wisdom. His depiction offers a monumental and serene figure directly related to Leonardo da Vinci’s work. The figure’s sculptural corpulence is marked by a powerful verticality elegantly countered by the harmonious movement of her arms, a trait characteristic of Yáñez, who derived it from Perugino. The entire figure is conceived with a clarity emphasized by the clear and tranquil lighting that captures her in a single, eternal moment. Like the female model, the architecture in the background was repeated on other occasions. Drawn from Florentine models, it suggests the Saint’s regal surroundings, strengthens the figure’s monumentality and defines the composition and space. Outstanding in this representation is the saint’s rich clothing, a handsome and surprising conjunction of Italian and Spanish elements that range from the Moorish fabric of her tunic, which is decorated with large Kufic and Nesjíe letters and has a luxurious belt at the waist, to the striking pearl choker that bears a splendid Renaissance pendant. This panel must have been made in Valencia during Fernando Yáñez’s first known period, after he returned to Spain from his studies in Italy. That would date it from between 1505 and 1510. The panel was acquired by the Spanish state in 1946 from the Marquis of Casa-Argudín’s collection (Text drawn from Ruiz, L.: Pintura Española del Renacimiento. Guía, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2001, pp. 22-24).