GUIDO RENI Digitorial


Guido Reni. The divine 11/23/2022 – 3/5/2023 Digitorial® for the exhibition

To make visible that which is invisible and scale divine heights: Guido Reni (1575–1642) set his sights high. Daring, cunning, and visually arresting, his paintings present glimpses of the extraordinary: sumptuous colours, beautiful bodies and compositions, but also scenes full of contrast and emotion. Long since forgotten and largely overlooked, the “divine” painter from Bologna was once a star among artists in his lifetime.

Guido Reni: The Divine

Reni – Super­star 1

Who recognizes the name Reni today? Who remembers the artist who in the 1600s held half of Europe in thrall? And yet, look more closely and you’ll see that Guido Reni’s art still lives on all around us.

Whether on skateboards, in fantasy imagery and the gaming industry, on crucifixes, candles and other Catholic devotional merchandise: Guido’s figures and, most of all, his heads with their up-turned faces and pleading expressions are still very much with us today.

Star among Artists

An artist who had the audacity to keep popes and queens waiting! On the Italian Peninsula and beyond, Guido Reni was celebrated as the most famous painter of his generation.

Reni lived up to the sobriquet of being an “artista divino”: upon his death in his hometown of Bologna in 1642, he was given a burial more befitting a saint, reflecting how the gifted draughtsman and painter had achieved truly cult-like status.

“His body remained on display three hours more, before being buried, so as to please the public, never satiated with seeing him, always curious to touch him.”

Carlo C. Malvasia 1678

A colourful character – that’s how Reni is described by contemporaries: with striking good looks, yet celibate and pious, the language of his pictorial inventions is clear, simple, and stirring at the same time – the prime example of a devoutly Christian painter. But there was another side to him. Known for his gambling addiction, he squandered large sums of money, succumbing to a base compulsion that would keep him at the gaming table late into the night. He was also overly superstitious, fearful of witchcraft and poisoning, and feared being touched, especially by women.

Ottavio Leoni, Portrait of Guido Reni, c. 1614 Black chalk on paper, 24.2 x 17 cm; David Lachenmann Collection

Legend and Truth

So who was Guido Reni? Several poems and biographies speak of his person. Most impressive of all is the detailed biography by Carlo Cesare Malvasia, an admirer and personal friend. Malvasia had first-hand knowledge of his subject. But in the 1600s, artists as famous as Reni were expected to play a public role, too. A bit like the celebrities of today, the line between the figure in the public imagination and that in real life was blurred.

Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Felsina pittrice. Vite de’ pittori bolognesi, 2 vols., Bologna (Barbieri) 1678 Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, Bibliothek, Sign. 101/125 8º

Don’t let yourself be seen without a hat! Reni knowingly adopts the guise of a courtier, convinced that talent has ennobled him. He often wouldn’t sell his works at fixed prices, as was the custom of the day, with prices usually determined by subject or dimensions. As his art was priceless anyway, he left the price-tag up to the clients’ discretion, effectively putting the ball in their court and exposing them to such pressures of one-upmanship that they often ended up paying more than the regular market price.

Guido Reni, Study for a Self-Portrait, c. 1620 Pen in brown ink on paper, 12 × 12.5 cm; Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, inv. 2079

Astronomical prices for his artworks! His studio’s revenue may have been enormous, but Reni’s notorious “princely expenses” were equally so. Whatever he didn’t gamble away, the charitable Reni generously donated to the needy and to his many godchildren. The revered exceptional artist didn’t play by the rules of his day.

Guido Reni, Fortune with a Purse, c. 1636–38 Oil on canvas, 152 × 130 cm, Frankfurt am Main, private collection

“[…] one person reported that over the course of his lifetime, Guido lost over one-hundred-thousand crowns at card-playing.”

Joachim Sandrart, Teutsche Academie, 1675

All Roads Lead to Rome

Taking liberties, commanding praise and record prices – Reni’s special place among peers was certainly not purely a matter of luck. After training in Bologna, he went to Rome. When the pope appointed him court painter, his fame was assured.

The son of a family of musicians embarked on a career as a visual artist: at age nine, Guido Reni began his training in the Bolognese workshop of the Fleming Denys Calvaert (1540–1619). Ten years later he joined an innovative art school, the Accademia degli Incamminati (“academy of those making progress”). Founded in Bologna by the Carraccis (the brothers Annibale and Agostino and their cousin Ludovico), this new school sought to reform painting.

Quick strokes: On the sketch sheet from around 1600, Reni made studies of muscular legs and figures. But the artist wasn’t just training his hand and eye in anatomical drawing. He was also practising his signature: “Io [I] Guido Reni Bologna” appears several times. By the time Reni left for Rome in 1601, he was an independent artist intent on carving out a name for himself with his own signature style.

Sketch sheet with figure studies and practice signatures, c. 1600 Pen and brown ink on cream-coloured paper, 37 × 25.5 cm, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, inv. 1587 F r.

Shooting to the top in just seven years: Reni’s rise in Rome was nothing less than meteoric. In 1608, Pope Paul V made him his court painter. Reni could now barely keep up with commissions: The powerful Borghese dynasty around Pope Paul V, and several other patrons, demanded a stream of new works from the star painter. Art as a declaration of faith and power – the pope wasn’t the only person eager to demonstrate both, nor the only person with the means to pay for it!

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Portrait Bust of Paul V (b. Camillo Borghese), 1621/22 Bronze, 83 × 74 × 25 cm, Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, inv. DEP47

Questions of Faith

A life divided between Rome and Bologna – Reni was a painter of the Papal States, the territory under the pope’s direct political rule and then covering much of central Italy. Reni’s art must also be seen within the wider context of religious conflict in 17th century Europe. The Counter-Reformation was the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Protestantism. Paintings, statues, and buildings were designed to evoke a sense of awe – becoming important tools in the campaign to strengthen and revive core Catholic beliefs and expunge religious doubts across Europe.

Reni worked to the point of exhaustion, employing many assistants. Even today, we can marvel at the elaborate murals by which he left his mark on the great churches and palaces of Rome. The surviving working drawings provide information about the intensive planning that went into their making.

Painting in the pope’s private chambers! The 1610 murals in the Cappella dell’Annunziata of the Quirinal Palace decorated what was then the pope’s summer residence. Paul V wanted to surround himself with Reni’s art in his private chapel.

Guido Reni, Study for a Girl Carrying a Dish in the Cappella dell’Annunziata (Rome, Quirinal Palace), 1609/10 Black chalk with wihte hightening on grey paper, 40.4 x 25.6 cm, Paris, Fondation Custodia, inv. 3016 Guido Reni, Birth of the Virgin (Fresco in the Cappella dell'Anunziata, Rome), 1609/10 Fresco, 360 x 335 cm, Rome, Quirinal Palace, Cappella dell´Annunziata
  • In 1609 Reni was commissioned by Scipione Borghese, Paul V’s nephew, to paint a mural in an oratory beside the church of San Gregorio al Celio. To complete such projects, Reni had to hire many assistants.

  • The Pauline Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is a sacred place for Catholics. It is where the Salus Populi Romani is kept, Rome’s most important icon of the Virgin Mary. That Reni was charged with frescoing two wall areas and vault sections is a mark of his formidable prestige.

Down to the Penny

A rare document: Reni’s account book has survived. From 1609 to 1612, the artist meticulously listed his expenses and earnings from major commissions in Rome. One possible reason for the painter’s exactitude here may come as a surprise: Reni, a man known for uncontrolled gambling, had probably spent a spell in a debtors’ prison.

Guido Reni, account book, 25 October 1609–15 May 1612 New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, shelf mark MA 2694
Guido Reni, Aurora, 1612–14, Rome, Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, Casino dell’Aurora Fresco, 280 × 700 cm; Rome, Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi (Casino dell'Aurora)

One of the most copied works in the history of art. Apollo steers his horse-drawn chariot through the stratosphere, while Aurora, goddess of the dawn, soars in front of him, scattering flowers. The joyous procession across the heavens brings light and fertility to the dusky landscape. Until the late 19th century, Reni’s ceiling painting – praised as “painted poetry” – was a must-see on every Grand Tourist’s visit to Rome, on a par with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Stanze in the Vatican.

see above and Study for the Aurora Fresco (Rome, Casino Pallavicini Rospigliosi), 1612–14 see above and Pen and brown ink over red chalk on paper, 12.5 × 25.7 cm, Vienna, Albertina, inv. 24550

A small drawing containing the essence of a monumental work of art! Using ink and red chalk on a single piece of paper, Reni sketched an astonishingly precise design for the seven-metre-long ceiling painting. His admirers and, most of all, the artist himself, were convinced: Reni’s composition drawings were manifestations of the “idee celesti”, heavenly ideas by an exceptional artist.

Defying Gravity

Defying Gravity 2

Soaring above and leaving everything behind – like his famous “Aurora”, many of Reni’s paintings invite us to lift off into the air. They offer an alternative to all-too-earthly reality: an art that is “not of this world”.

Real vs. Ideal

Reni would not have become Reni without his time in Rome. The son of Bologna was forever shaped by his rise to the position of papal artist. But the profound study of Caravaggio’s Roman painting also sharpened his visual vernacular.

Reni’s Roman patrons claimed that Reni could just as easily fill Caravaggio’s shoes and paint like him. Soon after arriving in Rome, Reni challenged his infamous rival. Guido’s “Christ at the Column” from the Städel’s own collection shows him adopting the typical “spotlight” effect – a Caravaggesque trademark.

  • Guido Reni, Christ at the Column, c. 1604 Oil on canvas, 192.7 × 109 cm (without later additions), Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, inv. 1103

    A luminous body against a pitch-black background: Christ stands before the viewer, immediate yet otherworldly, like a vision.

  • Caravaggio, The Flagellation of Christ, c. 1607 Oil on canvas, 286 x 213cm, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

    Stirring and lifelike, almost like a film still: Caravaggio is unflinching in his portrayal, making the action of the Passion of Christ as explicit and vivid as possible.

“There was no painter who did not esteem and speak well of Guido, excepting only Caravaggio.”

Carlo C. Malvasia 1678 Felsina Pittrice, Vite de’ pittori bolognesi, Bologna 1678; ed. Cropper/Pericolo 2019, p. 189

For about five years, Reni and Caravaggio were competitors in the hotly contested market of Rome. One cultivated the airs of a pious nobleman, fine-featured and angelic, the other was unkempt, violent-tempered, even murderous. Contemporary commentators liked to portray not merely two rival artists but also two rival character types. In retrospect, we suspect that both were not only brilliant artists, but also divas and eccentrics. But a comparison of their works reveals that their art is indeed very different.

David and Goliath – a harp-playing shepherd boy slays and beheads a wrathful giant: a story from the Old Testament. Caravaggio shows David’s murderous handiwork up close, relishing the gory details. Particularly haunting: Goliath’s severed head, his open eyes and mouth frozen in anguish.

Caravaggio, David and Goliath, 1599 Oil on canvas, 110 x 91 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Now look at Reni’s portrayal of the same subject. In an unreal room resembling a stage, David casually leans against a pillar. The main action of the story, a bloody killing that turns a lowly shepherd boy into a people’s hero, is not shown here. Dressed in a red beret, outlandish yellow feather, and royal fur cape, David gazes at the giant’s severed head in cool detachment. Reni stages the scene as an image of triumph: David rises above things, and his conspicuously untarnished body is reminiscent of the marble of an ancient statue.

David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1605/06 Oil on canvas, 228 × 163 cm, Orléans, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. 1177

“He [Reni] sees the natural, he grabs it, draws the good from it, leaving the bad and improves upon it […].”

Giulio Mancini c. 1621 Giulio Mancini (1956–1957): Considerazioni sulla pittura, ed. Adriana Marucchi/Luigi Salerno, 1956-57, vol. 1, pp. 108–111

The Promise of Beauty

Disregarding conventions – Reni could do that too. When the pressures of work in Rome became too much to bear, he packed it all in and went back to Bologna, and continued his career from there.

A painting of bloodlust, decorating a fireplace: Reni painted his spectacular “Samson” for the home of the influential and art-loving Zambeccari family of Bologna.

Guido Reni, Samson, c. 1615–17 Oil on canvas, 260 × 223 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 450 Guido Reni, Samson, c. 1615–17 Oil on canvas, 260 × 223 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 450

Slain soldiers sprawled on the ground – a terrible sight. Reni unsparingly shows the gory details of blood-splattered corpses, displaying a bodily realism familiar to us from Caravaggio. The dead bodies are scattered far and wide. The painting shows the biblical hero Samson, who purportedly slew 1000 enemy soldiers of the Philistine army. In the midst of this carnage, Reni places the figure of Samson – his body aglow in a golden light, breathtakingly beautiful. A ballet dancer in a victory pose. Who would dare paint such a contrasting combination?

“A more correctly drawn and most gorgeously colored torso was never seen.”

C. Malvasia 1678 Felsina Pittrice, Vite de’ pittori bolognesi, Bologna 1678; ed. Cropper/Pericolo 2019, p. 199

With “Samson”, Reni demonstrates his singularity of vision: artistic perfection on show in gruesome stories of murder and death? His painting could almost be interpreted as cynical. But Reni in fact offers his very own interpretation of the biblical story: beauty, represented by the hero aided by divine intervention, triumphs over the corporeal horrors of the battlefield.

Guido Reni, Samson (detail), c. 1615–17 Oil on canvas, 260 × 223 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 450

“It was he who, contemptuous of sharing this earthly soil with others, like a generous eagle (so to speak) took sublime flight to the spheres.”

Carlo C. Malvasia 1678 Felsina Pittrice, Vite de’ pittori bolognesi, Bologna 1678; ed. Cropper/Pericolo 2019, p. 15

Angelic Reni

The painter of fantastical male bodies is said to have avoided all contact with women. Reni was furthermore allegedly a virgin. Biographical details like these, often nowadays interpreted as signs of a latent homosexuality, were construed in Reni’s own lifetime as proof of an artist with an angelic nature – of a man, who like his art, was not entirely of this world. A man who avoided sex and had no qualms giving vast sums away, either to cut-throat gaming companions or the needy.

Guido Reni, Sacred Love and Profane Love, c. 1622/23 Oil on canvas, 132 × 163 cm; Genua, Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola, inv. 111

More than beautiful

More than beautiful 3

An inexplicable, god-given beauty – this is what lay at the heart of Reni’s fame as an artist in the 17th century. The demand for his works was enormous. To keep up, the artist ran a huge studio in Bologna, employing many dozen assistants.

Painted Ballet

“Un fare di paradiso”, a paradisiacal style – not by human hand, but “da angelo”, by an angel: Reni’s paintings are acclaimed in such glowing terms. 

“That which again in our day led men’s eyes to marvel at and the voices to celebrate Guido’s name was surely the lovely accompaniment of his divine grace [grazia].”

Francesco Scanelli 1657 Microcosmo della Pittura, 1657, quoted in Felsina Pittrice, ed. Cropper/Pericolo p. 432

His achievements cannot be explained merely in technical terms and by applying the rules of art: something else is at work in Reni’s paintings. The beauty and graceful movement of his imagery is spellbinding. His contemporaries were convinced that such “grace” could only be the result of divine inspiration.

Guido Reni, Hippomenes and Atalanta, c. 1615–18 Oil on canvas, 193 × 272 cm (with later extensions 206 × 279 cm), Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. P003090

Fateful Race

Striking a balance between light-footedness and the pull of gravity: Reni choreographs the nude figures of Hippomenes and Atalanta in a visually arresting scene, reminiscent of a dance movement. A canvas almost 3 metres in length! Guido’s highly stylized depiction of the Ovidian tale continues to enchant viewers today.

Atalanta, the fastest runner in all Greece, was warned in a prophesy not to marry for: “though still alive, yet you will lose your own self.” Unassailable in speed, she routinely challenges suitors to a race. Only the man who can outpace her will take her hand in marriage.

The beautiful Hippomenes accepts Atalanta’s challenge. Her beauty has made him lose his mind, for whoever loses the race must die. Reni’s portrayal displays astonishing originality. No artist had ever shown the couple naked in a race before.

Ingeniously simple: The large painting typifies Reni’s narrative style: stripping a story down to its core essentials. In this case, the audience watching the race is banished to the background, leaving just the main figures and their bodies caught in mid-action at centre stage.

Three golden apples from Venus, goddess of love, help Hippomenes to victory! Atalanta cannot resist and stoops to pick up the tossed decoys. And having lost, she must give her hand in marriage.

The legs of Hippomenes and Atalanta intersect. Reni hints at the outcome of the story here: overcome by mutual desire, the couple will succumb to lust and their bodies will cojoin in the sacred sanctuary of the goddess Cybele.

Their punishment for desecrating the sanctuary’s holy ground: Hippomenes and Atalanta will be turned into lions. Reni makes fatal sexual lust the underlying subject of his painting: he cunningly obscures Hippomenes’ genitals – probably also to ensure the “divine” beauty and harmony of his composition.

To modern viewers, the scene appears to be taking place a night. This impression is deceptive: discoloration has led to a darkening of the background. Originally, the horizon was tinged with a glimmering light.

Harmony, restrained emotion, grace – these are the qualities for which Raphael was famed during Reni’s lifetime. In fact, Raphael was Reni’s greatest role model. He personally owned numerous drawings by the genius of the High Renaissance. Reni followed Raphael’s soft contours and fine modelling. He developed poses for the head and body that are compositionally balanced and yet full of stirring emotionality. Like Raphael in his time, Reni was celebrated as a “divine” painter – il divino!

Raffael, Head Study for an Angel (cartoon fragment), c. 1519/20 c. 1519/20, black chalk over charcoal with highlights in white on paper, 30.8 × 25.4 cm, Budapest, Szépművészeti Múzeum, inv. 1943 Guido Reni, Head Study for a Young Woman, c. 1609/10 Red chalk on paper, 30 × 22 cm, Chatsworth, The Duke of Devonshire, inv. 485

Inspiration or Hard Work?

Reni’s Bolognese studio emerged as an attraction for visitors to the city. It had a constant stream of art dealers, cardinals, and ambassadors, all dropping by. Whether altarpieces or devotional pictures, mythological scenes or portraits, painted in lighter colours or a dark palette – Reni’s art remained highly sought after.

Red, yellow, green and the radiant blue of sky and sea: the painting captivates with its rich, radiant colours. Reni shows the encounter between Bacchus and Ariadne on the island of Naxos against a distant horizon. A clear, simple picture with a powerful visual impact.

Guido Reni, Bacchus and Ariadne, c. 1614–16 Oil on canvas, 96.5 × 86.4 cm, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, inv. M.79.63 (Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation)

Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete, languishes on a rock, lamenting. Her lover has just abandoned her, despite her sacrificing everything for him. The vessels under his command are sailing away in the distance. She is not yet aware, however, of Bacchus, god of wine and intoxicated revelries. But he is already pointing his index finger at his heart, which smoulders for Ariadne. The mythological story of a love between deity and man!

  • Ariadne, roman copy of a hellenistic original from ca. 200 BCE Marble, 161.5 x 195 cm, Rome, Musei Vaticani, Galleria delle Statue, inv. MV.548.0.0. Photo © Governorate of the Vatican City State - Directorate of the Vatican Museums

    For his Ariadne, Reni drew inspiration from a famous ancient statue. He usually modelled the poses of his female figures on works from antiquity. The antique models were generally thought to embody an ideal of beauty that living artists strove to imitate and surpass.

  • Guido Reni, Torso Study for Hercules on the Pyre, 1617 Black chalk, with touches of red and white chalk, on blue paper, 39 × 26.7 cm, Florence, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe, inv. 10113

    Reni’s drawings, by contrast, tell a different story: For when it came to male bodies, he would often draw, and draw meticulously, from life. His studio assistant Emilio Savonanzo was allegedly the model for his Bacchus. His living body was apparently a more beautiful model than those of ancient statues! When Reni died, nearly 2000 drawings by the master’s hand were inventoried.

No master has ever risen to the top without tireless practice. Reni knew how to use different models and to modify and combine them to serve his own style. Many of his contemporaries will have known all along that the art of the “divine” painter was actually the product of ceaseless hard work.

“These gifts are acquired with great effort; these ideas, which they say came to me in a revelation, I gained by studying […] ancient pieces of sculpture.”

Guido Reni as quoted by Giovan Pietro Bellori, 1672 Le Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, ed. Evelina Borea, Turin 1976, p. 529

One figure, two paintings – you don’t have to be an expert to see that Reni has recycled his Ariadne for the pose of Mary Magdalene. The ancient nude, a princess, is recast as a prostitute-turned-penitent Christian.

Guido Reni, Penitent Magdalene, c. 1635 Oil on canvas, 90 × 74.3 cm, Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, inv. 37.2631

Once just isn’t enough: the repeated use of certain figures or pictorial formulas is a constant in Reni’s work. Once he had invented a figure and pose, he would redeploy it at will. The artist also had his studio assistants reproduce countless copies of his most popular paintings. More than 50 workshop copies of the “Penitent Magdalene” are known to us today!

Such “mass production” was only made possible by having a large studio, with at times over 80 employees. But Reni himself is said to have held the firm opinion that it didn’t matter who executed the paintings or, indeed, how many times they were repeated. What counted was the brainchild behind them, the “heavenly ideas” that came to him, and him alone!

Magdalene in Demand

Guido’s “Penitent Magdalene” was a bestseller. In the 17th century, Magdalene was revered as a rich, glamorous prostitute who had confessed her sins to Christ and thus entered his closest circle. Magdalene’s story – from sinner to saint – served as a model for the Catholic sacrament of penance in the Counter-Reformation. Reni’s choice of imagery, which shows Magdalene reflecting on life and death, catered to tastes in the Papal States.

Scaling divine heights

Scaling divine heights 4

The viewer is gripped, spellbound, and enraptured: Reni seduces us to look into other spheres. A painter who intertwines art and religion.


Head tilted backwards, eyes looking at heaven in ecstasy – no motif is found more frequently in Reni’s paintings than his “upturned gaze”. The artist’s trademark reflected the religious zeitgeist. Pain, devotion, and divine revelation – but what exactly is behind Reni’s pictorial invention?

Raphael, The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, 1514 and Guido Reni, The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia (copy after Raphael), 1600/01 Oil on wood, 236 × 149 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 577

Nothing new? Reni didn’t come up with his trademark in a vacuum. In Raphael’s “Saint Cecilia” of 1514, the patron saint of church music has her rapturous gaze on heaven. Around 1600, Reni was commissioned to make a copy of the famous painting. Even as a child in Bologna he had had ample opportunity to admire it in a church. But Reni learned more from studying the picture than merely the motif of a figure looking up!

Guido Reni, Saint Catharine, c. 1606 Oil on canvas, 98 × 75 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. P000230


Nothing grabs our attention and pulls at our heartstrings more than an imploring gaze: Reni uses the “upturned gaze” skilfully and very originally – he zooms in to show only a half-figure and its facial expression. In this way, they exert a captivating pull on the viewer. We cannot resist being drawn by another’s intent gaze.

As if hypnotised: Reni’s Saint Cecilia looks in rapture at the divine glow of light, her hand on her breast. Her eyes roll so far back in their sockets that we almost only see the whites of her eyes. Reni visualizes an extreme emotional state.

A “cash cow” at Studio Reni: his upturned heads flew off the shelves. Devout Catholics tried to imagine the saints’ acts of faith by gazing intently at devotional pictures and letting themselves be emotionally transported, thus getting closer to the men and women rewarded for demonstrating absolute faith in God.

A glimpse of salvation! Saint Margaret was thrown into prison and killed for her Christian faith. She remained fearless, undaunted even by the devil, seen here as a dragon.

A pain beyond what is bearable: Reni also painted Christ’s head during the crucifixion, a moment before his agonising death, with his eyes cast up at heaven. The face of the Son of God, open-mouthed and red-eyed, has the power to move even sceptical unbelievers.

This variation is also deeply moving: Christ in the moment of torture and humiliation. The upward gaze not only signifies the rapt inner state of the sufferer. It also draws our attention beyond the picture to a higher (divine) truth that remains invisible to earthly observers.

Suicide is a sin, so how come this figure also beseeches heaven? Reni applied his trademark not only to Christian saints but also to heathen subjects from antiquity. Cleopatra let herself be bitten by a viper to escape the ignominy of political and public defeat. A moment of abject despair and the transition between life and death.

“[…] at least in the liveliness, the expression of his heads, he [Reni] invites comparison to Raphael himself.”

Luigi P. Scaramucci, 1674 Le finezze dei pennelli italiani, Pavia 1674, p. 25

Passionate devotion or raging pain: the upturned, beseeching look reflects extreme emotional states that are meant to appeal to the viewers’ empathy and strengthen them in their faith. Reni went to the limits of what could be said and depicted – and by doing so further demonstrated his artistic ability. He found models in ancient sculptures, revered by his contemporaries for their expressive power.

  • Head of Niobe (copy of antique), before 1672 and Guido Reni, Head Study for Judith, ca. 1625/26 Black and red chalk on light brown-grey paper, 33.6 x 22.6 cm, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 1992.70 (Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1992)

    Reni is said to have owned a plaster cast of this ancient head. The depiction of Niobe was extremely famous and influenced many artists. A portrayal of a mother in unimaginable despair. Classical mythology records how Queen Niobe was punished for mocking the goddess Leto: the gods murdered Niobe’s many children.

  • Head of Laocöon (plaster cast) and Study for a Head of Christ, ca. 1619 Plaster, 53 x 36 x 34 cm, Frankfurt am Main, Goethe-Universität, Institut für Archäologische Wissenschaften, Abguss-Sammlung, inv. A 31 and Black and red chalk with white heightening on paper, 31.5 x 25.7 cm, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Arts graphiques, inv. 8902

    The head of Laocoön from the celebrated Laocoön Group was another model for Reni. In the 1600s, this ancient sculpture was an “exemplum doloris” – a perfect embodiment of pain worthy of pictorial imitation. Reni transferred the posture of the head and the screaming mouth to the figure of tormented Christ.

A transgressive gaze, penetrating beyond the limits of this world: Reni’s contemporaries associated the upturned gaze with the idea of love for God. Reni’s countless variations on his studio’s signature piece are inventive, even witty. For example, in his spectacular “Conversion of Saul” even the horse turns its head towards heaven and the divine light, its lips parted as if about to speak!

Guido Reni, Conversion of Saul, c. 1616–19 Oil on canvas, 222 × 160 cm, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Patrimonio Nacional, inv. 10033839

In Seventh Heaven

A Christian painter: Reni’s passionate veneration of the Virgin Mary is legendary. His depictions of her Assumption were much-desired pieces, and it was even claimed that one of them had itself worked a miracle!

As if a curtain has been lifted, revealing a brief glimpse of heaven. Long before the invention of air travel, Reni has us soar above the clouds to witness a divine spectacle. Little angels lift the Virgin Mary ever higher; the upturned face of the Mother of God is full of hope.

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin, c. 1598/99 Oil on copper, 58 × 44.4 cm, Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, inv. 2434

Beautiful and supernatural: Floating upwards, the Virgin is being enveloped by a glowing light. The dreamlike image is painted, not on canvas but on a copper plate. The metallic support adds depth to the golden lustre, which, through skilful contrast, sets off the blue and pinkish-red of the Virgin’s cloak and robe.

Guido Reni, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1602/03 and Guido Reni, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1607 Oil on copper, 66.6 × 48.8 cm, London, The National Gallery, inv. NG214 an Oil on panel, 77 × 51 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. P000213

Over the course of his subsequent long career, Reni made numerous, very similar variantions on his early Assumption, on copper, on wood, and on canvas. Images of the Marian assumption into the glory of heaven were highly desired pieces during the Counter-Reformation, not least when by Reni’s hand.

The Virgin Mary – Catholic Figure of Light

The Virgin was everywhere to be seen. In the 17th century, praying to the Virgin was a touchstone of Roman Catholic religious practice. Statues and paintings celebrated the hearer of prayers and pleas for help. For, according to Catholic belief, the Virgin Mary is an intercessor between humankind and God, and can assist in the salvation of each individual. During the Counter-Reformation, images of a beautiful, triumphant Virgin Mary thus also served to distinguish Catholicism from the various new Protestant confessions. In the Protestant reading, the Virgin is nothing more than an ordinary woman, a passive mortal vessel chosen to bear the true instrument of salvation.

“Guido was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary […]. No painter in any century has ever represented her more beautiful and more modest than Guido.”

Malvasia Cropper/Pericolo 2019, vol. 1, pp. 166f

A Kiss to the Hand, Beautiful Lady

It wasn’t just Guido’s own celibacy that allowed him to portray the Virgin so beautifully. His great personal veneration of the Mother of God is intimately described in biographies. Every evening he is said to have prayed before an image of the Virgin Mary. This print from Reni’s studio in Bologna brings a smile to our face: the infant John the Baptist kisses the hand of the Mother of Christ! A kiss on the hand was then, as now, a gesture of reverence and esteem – and even in the 17th century a gallant declaration of love to a woman. Everything that the biographers write about the “angelic” Reni was designed to leave readers in no doubt that his veneration of the Virgin went beyond earthly love!

Guido Reni, Holy Family with Infant John the Baptist Etching, only state, 19.8 × 14.1 cm (sheet) Frankfurt am Main, Städel Museum, Graphische Sammlung, inv. 29079

In the course of his career, Reni increasingly chose to depict the figure of the Virgin floating into the glory of heaven. There was no limit to the popularity of these pared-down and thus all the more impactful depictions. Some of them are visually overwhelming, over three metres high, in luminous, almost unreal colours.

  • Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin, 1626/27, Castelfranco Emilia, church of Santa Maria Assunta Oil on canvas, 238 x 150 cm, Castelfranco Emilia, Santa Maria Assunta

    This image of the Virgin is still prayed to as an altarpiece in the Italian town of Castelfranco Emilia. When the painting was unveiled in 1627, the candles on the altar burned for hours, supposedly without losing wax, giving rise to superstitious claims that it was a “miraculous” painting by the “angelic” Reni.

  • Guido Reni, Immaculate Conception, 1627 Oil on canvas, 268 × 185.4 cm, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 59.32 (Victor Wilbour Memorial Fund, 1959)

    In the same year, 1627, Reni received the commission for this painting of the Immaculate Conception. The Spanish infanta and future empress Maria Anna was his client. When pressured by the Spanish ambassador, Reni had the diva-like audacity to snub the Spanish Crown. No one less than the pope himself stepped in to difuse the fraught situation.

From a miraculous image to the visualization of doctrinal theory – Reni’s Marian paintings are laden with meaning. In the 1600s, Catholic scholars were divided over the role of the Virgin in salvation history. Reni’s pictures take an unequivocal stand.

The Lesson of the Immaculate Conception

Exactly how and when was the Virgin Mary freed from original sin (Latin: macula)? This question was a much-argued point of theological debate during Reni’s lifetime. As a human being, Mary was naturally born in original sin. But she must have been free of sin to have been mother of the Son of God. The question for theologians, therefore, was when in her life did her redemption take place enabling her to bear His son? To overcome this conundrum, the doctrine of the “Immaculata Conceptio” states that she was already free of original sin when conceived by her mother, Saint Anne. Reni knew how to show the “immaculate” mother being triumphantly and solemnly taken up into heaven – to emphasize her exclusive, “immaculate” position within humankind.

The idolized painter! Magnificent, harmonious, overwhelming the senses – the Marian pictures of the painter of “heavenly ideas” combine religious contemplation and visual pleasure. The paintings appeal to intense feelings and a sense of beauty; the angelic painter transports us to higher spheres.

“[…] and no other painter has been able to use his brush to move the devout to silent prayer and inspire awe for the image.”

Giovanni Battista Passeri, 1772

Open ended

Open Ended 5

An exceptional artist “not of this world” – the final period in Reni’s long career is filled with enigmatic paintings. They give us the impression of being laid down quickly and boldly on the canvas, their meaning entirely open.

Completely Unfinished

Loose cursory brushstrokes, whole areas of the painting apparently left unfinished, and on top of all this, a striking use of a pale, porcelaneous palette. Reni’s works from his final years are as peculiar as they are fascinating.

Painted in bold frenetic strokes with a coarse brush, the green of the vegetation in the background bleeds into the light-brown cloth of the kneeling infant. In “Infant Christ and Saint John the Baptist” it is as if Reni intended to work up these merely preliminary forms at a later date – but didn’t.

Infant Christ and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1640–42 Oil on canvas, 86,5 × 69 cm, Rome, Musei Capitolini – Pinacoteca Capitolina, inv. PC 188

The painting is astonishing, especially considering the period: the application is thin, all the dark-brown contours of the bodies of Christ and John remain visible. The effect is simple and immediate. The question is though: did Reni himself think the work was finished? Or was it merely an abbozzo, a work still in the early stages, in which the composition is sketched out and the first layers of paint are laid in, but which still needs to be worked up to a finish? Opinions continue to differ.

The sketchiness of these later works may be explained by taking into account Reni’s age at the time. The decades of working under great pressure had taken their toll on the “angelic” artist. Added to which came his wild gambling habit and debts. Reni’s mental state was fraught, his finances increasingly desperate. He now worked with more haste, on many canvases in parallel. Start too many things at once and you’re bound to leave some of them unfinished.

Simone Cantarini, Portrait of Guido Reni, c. 1635–37 Oil on canvas, diameter 37 cm, Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 340
Guido Reni, Madonna and Child with Infant Saint John, c. 1640–42 Oil on canvas, 165.7 × 142.9 cm, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, inv. 84.PA.122

In this work, too, some things are left open, merely sketch-out. The lamb and the figure of Saint Joseph stepping through the door in the background are executed in just a few swift dashes of the brush. But things that appear unfinished were probably deliberately and intentionally placed in the painting: these passages lend a mysterious, supernatural touch to the picture.

“I wished I had the brush of an angel or the forms of paradise […] but I could not rise so high.”

Guido Reni as quoted by Giovan Pietro Bellori, 1672 Le Vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni, ed. Evelina Borea, Turin 1976, p. 534


To make the divine tangible – Guido Reni wanted to achieve nothing less with his art. In his later paintings, figure, line, and colour seem to dissolve. Reni often began such paintings and postponed their completion. Nevertheless, he increasingly found pleasure in the beauty of the unfinished image. Again and again, we see him making conscious use of the aesthetic of the unfinished as a compositional means of demonstrating his skill and painterly instinct. In any case, their simplicity and delicacy make Reni’s final paintings a refreshing visual experience.

Young Woman with Wreath, c. 1640–42 Oil on canvas, 91.5 × 73 cm, Rome, Musei Capitolini – Pinacoteca Capitolina, inv. PC 181

A picture meant to raise a smile. Reni depicts Bacchus, god of wine, as a podgy, boozy toddler. Propping himself up on a barrel, he gulps down the grape juice.

The infant god is sozzled enough not care that he is urinating! An ironic touch: mirroring the jet of pee, a spurt of wine leaks from the barrel. It’s a matter of “in one end and out the other”. But that’s not all: Reni also pokes fun at himself. The motif he had long made his trademark, the upturned gaze directed at heaven, is now worn by the infant Bacchus in a drunken stupor!

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