Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 52

The most impressive of the ornate metal vessels on the
opposite edge of the table is decorated with the motif
of a pelican feeding its young in a symbolic reference
to Christ’s redemptive sacrifice. Its remarkable design
is completed with a pair of small angels resting on a
scallop shell from which extends a chain (a probable
allusion to the sacrament of baptism), while other
plump infantile figures form the handles and the
crowning element, holding up a Eucharistic bunch
of grapes. The unique design of this object must have
been a product of De Leito’s imagination, as was the
second vessel, which also has figures of children, scallop
shells and chains but lacks any Christian symbolism.
Another smaller one is located next to the open jewel
casket, while a fourth lies at the foot of the first. Finally,
the composition is completed on the right side by
an ornate metal ewer; this is partly backlit, with an
anthropomorphic handle, a lip in the form of a dragon
and a bulbous body with further infant figures and
shell forms in relief. Evoking the extravagant designs
of Polidoro da Caravaggio, it reveals De Leito as a
designer of outstanding examples of metalwork.
Above the platters and next to the heavy curtains is a
crowned heraldic crest that offers a direct reference
to human pomp and status or to royalty as a sign of
vainglory, paralleled in the field of art by the laurel
wreath, which is just visible by the second skull. In
turn, the numerous necklaces, the handkerchief of
Spanish lace, the playing cards and the coins allude to
the vanity of wealth, its display, and worldly pursuits.
Among the objects hanging from the small casket, the
recurring miniature portrait of a woman may here
refer to repentance and the Christian life, given that
the figure has a small crucifix at her breast, although
the indistinct appearance of all the details in De Leito’s
visual fantasies means that such a suggestion can only
be a tentative one.
Alongside this outstanding, singular addition to De
Leito’s known treaments of the Vanitas theme, a further
three religious paintings have recently been added to
the artist’s oeuvre, including similar versions of the
Penitent Magdalene (185 x 160 cm, Corella, Museo de
Arte Sacro; and 174 x 123.5 cm, Herrera de Pisuerga,
church of the Piedad)(fig. 14), and a Penitent Saint Jerome
(184 x 157 cm) with Coll & Cortés in Madrid, none of
which are signed. Inspired by compositions of other
artists, the canvas in Corella and the one with Coll &
Cortés should be considered a pair. The composition
of the Penitent Magdalene derives from a print by Willem
van de Passe, based on a composition by Crispijn de
Passe the Elder (fig. 15). The attribution of the painting
to De Leito rests on various technical and formal
characteristics, including the similarity of the saint’s
body to that of some of the female figures in the artist’s
kitchen still lifes, the broken, swirling brushstroke in
his clouds and landscapes, and the elaborate pot of
unguent here carried by pairs of small flying angels,
the design of which is close to the beautiful flasks and
perfume bottles found in the artist’s unmistakable
Vanitas compositions.28
The Penitent Saint Jerome with Coll & Cortés (fig. 16)
is clearly the work of the same hand. According to a
widely-known apocryphal text, the great theologian
saint felt himself constantly surprised by the trumpet of
the Last Judgment, thus reminding him of the constant
vigil necessary in the face of death’s unexpected
summons.29 The most widely accepted formula for
depicting this moment invariably associated the theme
with Jerome’s periods of study or penitence. The
composition is arranged diagonally, creating space
for the almost ethereal figure of the angel, whose
garments, like the clouds that border the landscape, are
painted in a characteristic frothy, broken manner. De
Leito’s composition recalls Alonso Cano’s treatment of
the subject (Granada, Museo de Bellas Artes) painted
a few years earlier. Here, however, the powerful figure
of Jerome is transformed into an elderly man of small,
thin build, with a troubled expression. In one hand he
holds a penitential stone and in the other a crucifix,
while at his feet a book resting on a skull refers to
the brevity of existence and the imminence of the
Last Judgment.30 These elements recall and relate
thematically to De Leito’s Vanitas pictures. Indeed, in
these emotive renderings of single saints, the subject
matter is closely aligned in mood, atmosphere, and
meaning to the Vanitas compositions that De Leito
was able to develop in a more complete and effective


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