Some weeks ago I wrote about Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ, one of the most internationally famous paintings on show in Ireland. It is housed in the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI).

No sooner had this appeared in print than I received an invitation to the NGI to witness the unveiling of another of the gallery’s greatest works, one that has been part of the permanent collection for some 150 years, Lavinia Fontana’s celebrated painting, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. It had “disappeared” from view for 18 months to undergo conservation work, and the result of that project can now be seen just two rooms away from the Caravaggio.

Conservators Maria Canavan and Letizia Marcattili were joined for the unveiling by curator Aoife Brady, and how proud they can be of bringing this picture, painted, we now know in 1599, back to life.

In fact, the recent work on the painting revealed more details about the original work, facts that has been hidden for centuries under varnish.

Of particular significance for this painting is that the artist, Lavinia Fontana, is now generally recognised as the first female painter to achieve professional success, outside the realms of those working in the close confines of a royal court or a convent. This was at a time when women were not allowed to study or work in a studio alongside male contemporaries.

Making a significant breakthrough in the 16th century, Lavinia Fontana was the first woman to be accepted into the prestigious Accademia di San Luca in Rome.

She went on to smash the glass ceiling when it came to career progression, and was even appointed as portrait painter to Pope Paul V. She was also the first documented female artist to have her own workshop.

Lavinia Fontana was following in the footsteps of her father, Prospero Fontana, a well-known member of the Bolognese school of painting, and he too had a papal connection, working for Pope Julius III.

Much of Lavinia’s life was about breaking moulds

Prospero encouraged his daughter’s pursuit of a career in painting.

Much of Lavinia’s life was about breaking moulds.

She married “a man of good standing”, Gian Paolo Zappi, but with the stipulation that she would be the breadwinner. This she managed, in spite of giving birth 11 times, though only four of the children survived to adulthood, and just three outlived their mother.

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon will no doubt in 2023 take centre stage when the NGI will stage a large-scale exhibition entitled Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker. Meanwhile, the gallery has a beautiful, concise coffee-table book telling the story of the picture, the artist and the work carried out on its conservation.

It is a great accompaniment to a visit to Room 27 in the NGI where the painting can be seen for free.

This book investigates the identities of the numerous figures represented in the painting which occupies a complete wall of the room, the material history of the work and the technique of Lavinia Fontana.

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