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Church in Flames (Temptation of Saint Anthony?)

flemish school (?)

The subject of this work is not easily deciphered, given its poor state of conservation. It does, however, contain several elements which may suggest that we are dealing with a representation of the Temptations of Saint Anthony. The composition is painted on the back of a round panel, whose front side had already contained the Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, ascribed to the manner of Jan Brueghel the Elder. The panel has formed part of the Borghese Collection since at least 1693, the year it is first mentioned in an inventory.

Object details

17th century
oil on panel
cm 12 (diametro)

19th-century frame (part of a polyptych, 28 x 181.5 x 4 cm


Inv. 1693, room XI, nos 1-5; Inv. 1790, room VII, nos 77-78 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 29, no. 64/66. Purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1905 Luigi Bartolucci
  • 1958 Alvaro Esposti
  • 1992 Istituto Centrale del Restauro (pest control)


The work in question was painted on the back of a round panel whose front side already contained a Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. The tondo may have originally functioned as a lid for a container; at a later point, when it no longer served that purpose, the back may have been painted such that an image appeared on both sides. The composition is in fact by a different artist with respect to the Landscape and dates to a later period, details which are still evident in spite of its poor conservational state.

Some kind of vegetation is visible in the centre of the work; this reflects the light of the flames of the burning church in the background to the right. Several black birds occupy the other side of the composition. In the lower portion, meanwhile, we can glimpse two figures, one of which could be friar. A man riding a flying horse can be seen at the top.

Although the composition is generally referred to as the Church in Flames, it may actually depict the Temptations of Saint Anthony. Critics believe it to be the product of Flemish circles, like the Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (Della Pergola 1959, p. 167, n. 241), which Della Pergola in fact connected to the circle of Jan Brueghel the Elder, whether a derivation or a work by a follower. The year 1693 represents the terminus ante quem for the Church in Flames, when the panel first appears in a Borghese inventory with this description: ‘two tondos, roughly half a span in diameter, one numbered 93, with villages [...], artists uncertain’. Confirmation that this entry corresponds to the tondo in question is given not only by the description of the subjects but also by the number 93, which is still visible in the lower portion of the Landscape. Subsequently, the panel is perhaps referred to in the 1790 inventory in the entry of ‘tondos with two small villages, manner of Brugolo’ and in the Inventario Fidecommissario of 1833, which, however, cites only the work on the front.

The provenance of the panel as well as the precise date of its entry into the Borghese Collection are still unknown.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 393;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 199;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 218;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, pp. 157, 167, nn. 224, 241;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 137.