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Virgin and Child with Saint John of Nepomuk

Conca Sebastiano

(Gaeta 1680 - Naples 1764)

In the past this painting was ascribed to Carlo Maratti; it in fact entered the Borghese Collection in 1921 with this attribution. It was Roberto Longhi who rightly identified the hand of Sebastiano Conca. The work is an example of the artist’s typical iconography: his representations of the Madonna and Child with saints were quite popular throughout the 18th century. In this case, the saint is John of Nepomuk, the Bohemian martyr canonised in 1729, the event which most likely motivated the choice of this subject; indeed, the painting may have been executed immediately after this date.

Object details

c. 1730-1735
oil on canvas
103 x 69 cm

Salvator Rosa, 119.3 x 83 x 7 cm


Purchased by Italian state, 1921.

  • 1922 Firenze, Palazzo Pitti
  • 1959 Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni
  • 1981 Gaeta, Palazzo De Vio
  • 1993 Praga, Monastero di Strahov; Monaco, Bayerhisches Nazional Museum
  • 1998-1999 Cavalese, Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme; Jesi, Museo e Pinacoteca Comunale; Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
  • 2020 Ajaccio, Musée Fesch
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1921 Tito Venturini Papari
  • 1984 Laboratorio della Soprintendenza


Previously held at Palazzo Conventati in Macerata, the painting was purchased by the Galleria Borghese in 1921 as a work by Carlo Maratti. It in fact appeared with this attribution when it was exhibited in Florence the following year. It was Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 226) who called this name into question, proposing rather that of Sebastiano Conca. This scholar identified a drawing for a composition quite similar to the Borghese canvas which bears that painter’s signature. The drawing in question was later purchased by the Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe (today’s Istituto Centrale per la Grafica).

Following a pyramidal layout, the artist positioned the Virgin and Child in the upper portion of the composition, surrounded by angels. Below appears the figure of John of Nepomuk, the saint from Bohemia who lived in the 14th century and who was particularly venerated in the territories of the Habsburg Empire. He was martyred by King Wenceslaus IV, who ordered that he should be chained and thrown into the Vltava River: the episode is depicted in the background on the left side of the painting.

According to legacy, the saint was condemned to death for refusing to reveal the confession of Queen Joanna of Bavaria to the king, who suspected his wife of infidelity. The inscription posuit custodiam ori suo on the panel held by the small angel in the foreground on the right of the scene clearly alludes to this event. Another reference to John’s martyrdom appears in the palm branch which another angel offers the saint with her right hand, while inviting the viewer to remain silent with the other.

The work is an example of the iconographic genre based on the representation of the Madonna and Child with saints, a subject much in demand on the part of public entities. Conca was one of the most able and prolific painters in this field. His numerous versions of the theme constitute a standard of comparison for 18th-century artists, especially in southern Italy (Sestieri 1981, pp. 202-203). Other similar works by him include the Madonna and Child with Saint Francis de Sales in Venaria Reale and another composition with the figure of John of Nepomuk, painted for the church of San Filippo Neri in Turin (Epifani 2020, pp. 249-250).

Giancarlo Sestieri (1981) claimed that the work in question served as the model for another canvas, now lost, which was commissioned by the bishop of Salzburg and mentioned by Lione Pascoli in his biography of Conca (1874). More recently, Mario Epifani (2020) drew attention to a fresco painted by the artist in a chapel of the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, also noted by Pascoli: this work was destroyed during renovation work carried out in the 19th century. The connection between this fresco and the Borghese canvas is attested to by an illustration in a volume belonging to Johann Rudolf von Spork, auxiliary bishop of Prague.

An engraving of our work by Gottlieb Heiss also played a role in spreading the popularity of this iconographic genre. Heiss executed the engraving in 1735 for Cardinal Corsini, nephew of Clement XII. A print made from it was purchased by the Galleria in 1932; it still forms part of the Collection (inv. no. 535; see Della Pergola 1951, pp. 87-88, no. 155).

The date of the print represents the terminus ante quem for that of the painting, which was probably executed in the early 1730s, immediately after John of Nepomuk’s canonisation in 1729. In all likelihood the celebration of that event motivated the choice of the subject of this canvas.

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Cantalamessa, Un quadro di Carlo Maratti, in “Bollettino d’Arte”, XV, 1921 (1922), pp. 352-355;
  • Mostra della Pittura Italiana del Seicento e Settecento MCMXXII, catalogo della mostra (Firenze, Palazzo Pitti, 1922), Roma-Milano-Firenze 1922, p. 125;
  • R. Strinati, La Galleria Borghese di Roma. Gli ultimi acquisti. Giulio Cantalamessa, in “Emporium”, LX, 1924, pp. 601-612;
  • H. Voss, Die Malerei des Barock in Rom, Berlin 1924, p. 622;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 226;
  • A. De Rinaldis, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e Monumenti d’Italia”), 3a ed., Roma 1939, p. 30;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma (“Itinerari dei Musei e monumenti d’Italia”), Roma 1952, p. 34;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese.I Dipinti, I, Roma 1955, p. 87, n. 154;
  • Il Settecento a Roma, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1959), Roma 1959, p. 85, n. 156;
  • G. Sestieri, in Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764), catalogo della mostra (Gaeta, Museo di Palazzo De Vio, 1981), 1981, pp. 202-203, n. 58;
  • G. Andrisani, Saggi su Conca e su Annigoni (“Quaderni della Gazzetta di Gaeta” XXX), Caserta 1986, p. 52;
  • P. Volk, in Johannes von Nepomuk, 1393-1993, catalogo della mostra (Praga, Monastero di Strahov; Monaco, Bayerisches Nationalomuseum), a cura di R. Baumstark, J. von Herzogenberg, P. Volk, München 1993;
  • C. Felicetti, in Cristoforo Unterperger, un pittore fiemmese nell’Europa del Settecento, catalogo della mostra (Cavalese, Palazzo della Magnifica Comunità di Fiemme; Jesi, Museo e Pinacoteca Comunale; Roma, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, 1998-1999), a cura di C. Felicetti, Roma 1998, p. 132;
  • C. Stefani, in P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 354, n. 6;
  • 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. 180;
  • M. Epifani, in La grande bellezza. L’Art à Rome au XVIII siècle, 1700-1758, catalogo della mostra (Ajaccio, Musée Fesch, 2020), a cura di A. Bacchi et alii, Cinisello Balsamo 2020, pp. 249-250, n. 141.