The Embarkation of Saint PaulaCa. 1639. Oil on canvas, 211 x 145 cm.
A noble Roman widow and mother of five children, Saint Paula decided to retreat to the desert and abandon her worldly ways in favour of a life of prayer and penitence. In 285 AD she abandoned Rome with her son, Eustace, and moved to Antioch, where she joined Saint Jerome to share a hermit’s life. Claude Lorrain’s painting depicts her departure, offering an imaginary recreation of the port of Ostia. The canvas includes an inscription clarifying the subject, as it was not a common one and could therefore have been difficult to identify.
Claude painted this work in Rome as one of a group of four (all in the collection of the Museo del Prado) intended for the decoration of the new Buen Retiro Palace. Between 1639 and 1640 port scenes were one of Claude’s favourite subjects, and their inclusion in the Buen Retiro series suggests he was accorded a certain freedom in his treatment of the subject. This work contains many of that genre’s customary characteristics, such as an intense golden light that shines out from the background and partially blinds the viewer, and a row of buildings. Here some of the buildings are real, including the Villa Medici and the Genoa lighthouse standing directly on the horizon.
Compared to other depictions of ports, this work is highly developed, with; its broad foreground occupied by the group seeing the saint off. His earlier treatments of the subject -such as Seaport with the embarkation of Saint Ursula, 1641, or Seaport with the embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648 (both National Gallery, London)- focus less on the group. In another work depicting the same event, dated 1648/50 (Musée départemental d’Art ancien et contemporain, Épinal), Claude reversed the group, completely changing the size, format and architecture of the composition.
The relationship between the Museo del Prado’s painting and a smaller version also in Spain’s Royal Collection has not been established. The date 1642 seems rather late to be included in the Buen Retiro project, and the fact that it adds nothing to the Classical Landscapes gallery (since the subject is already depicted in a more important work) suggest that this painting arrived in Spain during the reign of Philip V it is likely to have arrived with Claude’s Pastoral landscape with the Ponte Molle, Rome, c.1644 (Duke of Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London), which had the same owner and provenance, and possibly with other small paintings by this artist that are now also in the Museo del Prado’s collection (Úbeda de los Cobos, A.: Italian Masterpieces. From Spain`s Royal Court, Museo del Prado, 2014, p. 214).