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Giambattista’s St. Thecla

Main image: Giambattista Tiepolo, 'Modello for St. Thecla Altarpiece at Este Cathedral' | Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saint Thecla. No, no one knows how to pronounce it either. Having done the research, the results are disappointing: It’s pronounced in the least attractive way out of the obvious possible options. Like tetra pack with and added ‘th’ and an absent ‘pack’. And with the ‘cla’ replacing the ‘tra’. Ok, clearly nothing like tetra pack. How much nicer, though, would it have been if it was pronounced like a child with a lisp asking for tea. And a claw. Saint Theeclaw.

(An imaginary child’s logic might be impenetrable, but it is sound).

Now to the second and third most important questions of the day. Questions we’ve all clearly be asking during the great Covid-19 lockdown-but-not-quite-lockdown quarantine: Who in heaven’s great cannoli was St. T? And why was she the central saint in one of Giambattista Tiepolo’s fanciest altarpieces?

Well, dear readers, you need wait no longer, for all these questions will now be answered. And you can go back to your furlough, child home-schooling, new housewife/husband persona that little bit lighter.

St. Thecla popped up for the first time in the apocryphal Acts of St. Paul and St Thecla written in around the second century. She was young, noble, and a virgin (clearly a trend among plague saints) from Iconium (Turkey).

The story starts at around the time just before she was due to be married.

BUT

(Because all saints are runaway brides).

Before the upcoming nuptials she heard St Paul speak on virginity. This had quite an effect on her, in particular the ‘one must fear only God and live in chastity’ speel. Alas, her fiancé was none too pleased about Thecla’s newfound celibate leanings, and thought it a good idea to report both her and St. P to the local authorities.

This started a chain of events which ended up with St. T being threatened with a good old stake burning. (One can’t win as a woman in the 2nd century AD. Shag someone you get burnt at the stake. Don’t shag someone you get burnt at the stake).

BUT

Lo and behold, a miracle: A storm stopped the burning of said stake, and Thecla, fully alive, and not horny at all, travelled with Paul to Antioch of Pisidia (also somewhere in Turkey).

Unfortunately, to continue a theme, when they got there, some posh chap tried to rape her.

And failed.

Largely because she seemed to have had a good left hook. Alas, the locals were not quite woke enough to appreciate the avoided rape, and Thecla was once again sentenced to death, this time by being offered as tea and biscuits to wild beasts.

BUT

She was saved (there’s a pattern emerging here) by some lionesses. Which somehow prompted her to self-baptise by diving into a nearby lake with some angry seals.

(Where in heaven’s name was Paul was in all this? And why, after his clear indifference, did she continue to fangirl him on a level extraordinaire?).

Thecla then popped over to Myra to join Paul, who evidently had, at some point, buggered off. She started preaching the word of God, with a particular focus on chastity. For women only of course.

(How this logic worked, one has to wonder. The development of the human race results from most people not giving a flying fuck).  

St T went on to live for quite a while, all virginal and wot not, constantly being persecuted but never giving up on her message of holy frigidity. As an ultimate act of the dedicated groupie, shortly before her death she travelled to Rome in order to lie herself next to St. Paul’s tomb.

Each to their own.

Figure 1: Giambattista Tiepolo after Giambattista Tiepolo, Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken | Image credit: Bridgeman Images

St T is remembered largely for the many miracles in which she was known to heal the sick, and for which she was adopted by the town of Este as its patron saint.

Which brings us to Tiepolo’s masterpiece: Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken painted for the Este cathedral (Fig. 1). I can’t face saying too much about it save that the work is still to be found in situ. Commissioned  in 1758 and installed on Christmas day of the following year, it commemorated the horrid plague of 1638. St. T is shown among the victims of the town, who are relegated to the background, while she takes centre stage.

Divaaahhh!

A modello by Tiepolo hangs in the Met in New York, showing the saint, with an ‘I’ve just been dumped’ kind of haircut, dressed in a fancy monk’s cloth tunic (main image).

There are also a number of prints after the work, the earliest one being by Lorenzo after the work of his dad (Fig. 2).

Oh fuck it. I can’t be bothered to write any more. There’s a wiki article for anyone who’s that bored to want to know more . My advise is, get a better hobby. Life’s too short.

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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