A Gothic panel by Lluís Dalmau, a new addition to the museum’s collection

Cèsar Favà

On 31 May the Decapitation of Saint Baudilus, by Lluís Dalmau, originally in Sant Boi de Llobregat, was sold at auction and purchased by the museum thanks to funding by the Palarq Foundation. From this week and coinciding with Museu Nacional Night 2017, it is temporarily on display in room 17 of the Gothic Art collection until 30 July.

Lluís Dalmau, Virgin of the “Consellers, 1443-1445

For many years, the panel of the Virgin of the “Consellers”, one of the icons of the museum’s Gothic Art collection and one of the most important Catalan paintings of that period, was the only known work by Lluís Dalmau (in Spanish). In recent decades, however, several discoveries have been made that improve our knowledge of the work of this royal painter, who worked for King Alfons the Magnanimous (1416-1458) and on his orders travelled to Flanders (1431), one of the foremost artistic centres of the time.

In the 1960s Joan Ainaud, then director general of the Barcelona Art Museums, unearthed another recorded work by the painter: the middle panel from the old high altarpiece in the church of Sant Baldiri in Sant Boi de Llobregat, which had been hidden underneath a later repaint. The restoration of the piece in the workshop of the then Museu d’Art de Catalunya made it possible to recover the original appearance of this beautiful image of the saint from Nimes, still conserved today in the eighteenth-century church dedicated to him in Sant Boi.

Lluís Dalmau, Saint Baudilus, 1448. Church of Sant Baldiri in Sant Boi de Llobregat. Photo: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

An earlier find by Josep Maria Madurell, the historian of the Historical Protocols Archive in Barcelona, published in 1945, was crucial to the discovery of the second recorded painting by Dalmau. I am referring to the notarial document, according to which, on 15 September 1448, some years after finishing this famous commission for the chapel of the consellers in Barcelona, the artist agreed to do the painting for the altarpiece in Sant Boi de Llobregat. Also, the carpentry work had been commissioned two days earlier.

The old altarpiece in Sant Boi continues to be Dalmau’s only known recorded work, apart from the part preserved of the altarpiece from the council’s chapel in Barcelona. Since then, however, new studies have increased our knowledge of this group and of the circumstances that surrounded the making of it. Among other things we now know that his work was dismantled as a result of the erection of a new Baroque retable, commissioned in 1688 to the sculptor Miquel Gra and more in keeping with the new fashions. Or, what is even more important: other panels that were part of the same altarpiece have survived.

Lluís Dalmau,Trial of Saint Baudilus, conserved in the Gerstenmaier Collection, 1448. Gerstenmaier Collection

One of them, mentioned by José Gómez and published by Francesc Ruiz in 2005, is that of the Trial of Saint Baudilus, conserved in the Gerstenmaier Collection, in Madrid [Fig. 4]. The other one, which we are discussing here, is the Beheading of Saint Baudilus, which, having belonged to the descendants of Rafael Casanova, the chief councillor of Barcelona in 1714, was added to the Barraquer Collection in Sant Feliu de Guíxols (Baix Empordà) and has just entered the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the only museum with work by the painter.

Lluís Dalmau, Decapitation of Saint Baudilus, 1448

This painting was published for the first time by Chandler Rathfon Post in 1938. Then, however, it was identified generically as the beheading of a deacon and was hypothetically ascribed to the painter Pau Vergós. Its attribution to Lluís Dalmau and its linking to the high altarpiece in Saint Boi de Llobregat was not proposed until many years later, 1977, thanks to the research work by Francesc Ruiz, the historian who has studied the subject the most.

The composition of the panel, divided into three narrative levels arranged vertically, presents the saint’s martyrdom, which has just taken place, including a clear allusion to his power to work miracles. In the middle of the top one we see the pagan chieftain, with crown and sceptre and dressed in rich robes decorated with ermine, who has presided over the execution seated upon a stone throne, flanked to the left and right by his henchmen.

Lluís Dalmau, Decapitation of Saint Baudilus, 1448. Detail

In the centre of the intermediate level there is the lifeless body of the martyr, still bleeding. His hands are tied behind his back and he is wearing a brocaded chasuble, as luxurious as it is anachronistic. To his left there is the magnificent sorrowful figure of his executioner, who poses elegantly, holding the axe with which he has done the deed in one hand. It is worth mentioning that, compared to other images of executioners, the painter has not depicted him particularly harshly, despite the face with its grotesque features and the yellow clothes that traditionally have negative connotations. To his right, a lame old man advances towards the foreground on crutches.

Lluís Dalmau, Decapitation of Saint Baudilus, 1448. Details

Finally, in the bottom level there are two figures around the saint’s haloed head that, together with the lame man, highlight the saint’s power to work miracles. We see the three springs there that according to tradition rose as a result of their triple impact on the ground. Three figures have gone to them in the hope of being healed: a lame man, an injured pilgrim wearing a hat with three badges of pilgrimage, and a blind man who puts a few drops of water in his eyes.

Lluís Dalmau, Decapitation of Saint Baudilus, 1448. Detail

The episode depicted indicates that the panel must have been one of those at the end of the cycle of Saint Baudilus and, because of the lack of sockets at the bottom of the back, one may deduce that it must have occupied a place towards the bottom of the group. As was the case with the panel in Saint Boi de Llobregat, the top of the Museu Nacional’s new acquisition was sawn off. This must have been the part originally reserved for the traceries, and it subsequently underwent considerable repair work. Luckily, the work was restored in 1977 by Joaquim Pradell, head of restoration at the Museu d’Art de Catalunya, who very skilfully managed to restore the splendour of Dalmau’s painting.

Related links

Prodigies in the collection, Cèsar Favà

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