A Baroque painting by a French master has hidden in plain sight for more than 160 years, in Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral. By Luke Slattery.

Jacques Stella masterpiece discovered in Melbourne

Jacques Stella, 'Jesus in the Temple found by his Parents', 1642 [detail]
Credit: Melbourne Archdiocese Collection

Each Sunday, hundreds of believers course through the Gothic Revival portal of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, unaware that on the baptistery wall hangs a lost masterwork by Jacques Stella, official artist at the court of Louis XIII.

The Baroque altarpiece, painted in the early 17th century, was only recently identified by Professor Jaynie Anderson, founding director of the Australian Institute of Art History. It has hung in Melbourne, undescribed and unknown, for more than 160 years.

“The altarpiece has been seen by millions of worshippers but has never previously been photographed, nor discussed in art-historical literature,” Anderson wrote in leading art periodical The Burlington Magazine this week. “Jacques Stella’s Jesus in the Temple found by his Parents is a painting of great quality, whose provenance, revealed here for the first time, suggests that it is the original altarpiece commissioned for the Jesuit church of the novitiate in Paris, consecrated in October 1642.”

Stella’s painting was purchased for St Patrick’s in the 1850s by Melbourne’s first Catholic archbishop, James Goold, who emerges from Anderson’s story as a far-sighted colonial art collector of great discernment. It depicts the interior of a classicised Hebrew temple with the adolescent Jesus, in a red tunic, among a crowd of scribes and sages. Jesus, right hand raised, declaims to Mary and Joseph, whose features are stern yet resigned. Two angels float above the tableau. The relevant biblical passage, from the Gospel of Luke, by contemporary standards reflects poorly on 1st-century parenting: it describes Mary and Joseph, having failed to notice their son Jesus absent from their company when returning from Passover in Jerusalem, doubling back and searching the city for three days. When they discover their precocious child in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions, they chide him. His haughty response – “I must be about my Father’s business” – is read as affirmation, in the presence of Joseph, that Jesus is the son of God.

Speaking to The Saturday Paper from New York, Professor Anderson says the Melbourne Stella, while lacking the “dramatic savagery of a Caravaggio”, is nevertheless an “intensely refined and deeply felt religious French painting”. She has spent more than half her life looking at paintings in churches and museums, she says, and was surprised to see such a jewel hanging, unheralded, in the cathedral’s baptistery.

“I am surprised to have been so lacking in curiosity as to have never been inside St Patrick’s before, having been brought up an Anglican,” she says. “Now I am always popping into Catholic churches.”

To establish the painting’s provenance, Anderson, until recently Herald Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne, traced it to the novitiate church in Paris. It was likely commissioned by the Jesuit order to hang there.

A century or so later it was in the collection of Cardinal Joseph Fesch, a diplomat and art collector whose cultural enthusiasms were greatly aided by his status as Napoleon Bonaparte’s uncle and representative in Rome.

“Fesch bought mostly religious art, especially Italian primitives and Baroque paintings,” Anderson writes. “The Fesch collection was immense, larger than any museum at the time, and he constantly profited from his nephew’s political activities, often buying large numbers of pictures in order to obtain a masterpiece.” The cardinal’s house in Paris was reckoned to hold 1600 paintings. These included works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giorgione, Raphael and Fra Angelico.

One of the works in the Fesch collection was the Melbourne Stella, which appears to have shuttled between Paris and Rome, rival European cultural capitals of the 18th century.

In 1844, at the sale of the Fesch collection in Rome following his death in 1839, the Stella altarpiece was sold to the French artist Charles George: the painting still bears a Roman customs stamp confirming its export at that time. Quite how it got from George’s collection to Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Cathedral is anyone’s guess. Anderson points out, however, that the measurements of the Melbourne Stella are precisely those given in the sale catalogue of the Fesch collection – although it was mistitled in an inventory made of his collection.

Archbishop Goold was not in Europe for the Fesch sale but he was, Anderson says, well connected with Italian ecclesiastical and artistic circles.

Anderson is the first to admit that the name Jacques Stella has none of the resonance of his contemporary and close friend Nicolas Poussin. After his death, in fact, much of Stella’s work was sold by his heir, a niece, as Poussin’s. Though little known today, Stella was a star in his day: he painted for the young Duke Cosimo de’ Medici – patron of Galileo – and was presented by Cardinal Richelieu to the French king. It was in death that his star waned. 

Stella was a retiring bachelor and his descent into posthumous obscurity can be partly explained, Anderson says, by the absence of a “determined widow to keep his name alive”.

“Jacques Stella was a celebrated artist in 17th-century France, yet it is only in the 21st century that he has been honoured with a monographic exhibition,” Anderson writes. “Today Stella’s works are scarcely known outside France. That his masterpiece for the Jesuit novitiate has been quietly present in the principal Catholic cathedral in Australia, since Archbishop Goold brought it there, is a remarkable discovery.”

Aside from her art-detective work in confirming the identity of the painting as an original by Jacques Stella, Anderson has also been able to cast light on the cultural achievements of Archbishop Goold. An Irishman, Goold was educated in Augustinian seminaries in Italy between 1833 and 1837 and is supposed to have acquired a taste for Italian Baroque painting and prints in that period. He arrived in Australia in 1838 and over time bought many artworks to decorate Melbourne’s first Catholic churches. Until now, however, they have been regarded as copies.

This was the fate of Goold’s Stella, which had been dismissed as a copy of the artist’s Christ among the Doctors, which decorates the Gothic church of Andelys in Normandy. That painting, notable for its use of vibrant lapis lazuli, is now viewed as a near-identical twin of the Melbourne Stella from the hand of the same artist. Crucially for Anderson’s argument, new evidence suggests that the Melbourne altarpiece, and not the version in Les Andelys, was bought by Cardinal Fesch.

Anderson suspects Goold imported the Stella altarpiece from London to Melbourne on the brig Amy, arriving on June 23, 1853. Her evidence is a report, in Freeman’s Journal, dated August 6, 1853, which describes a “large case of paintings” for the Bishop of Melbourne. “They are principally of the Italian school, and are intended for the decoration of the Church of St Francis, Lonsdale Street,” the journal reported. “Some of these pictures are most gorgeous and of colossal proportion.”

The Stella altarpiece was likely displayed at the church in Lonsdale Street and moved to St Patrick’s after its completion in the late 1890s.

Goold was first revealed as a serious collector of European Baroque art in 2014, when some of his prints by the 18th-century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi were exhibited at the State Library of Victoria. The archbishop, it emerged, had paid £1000 for 27 large folios of Piranesi’s etchings. Overseas experts visited Melbourne for the exhibition, and were impressed.

Anderson recalls how Professor Luigi Ficacci, then Bologna’s museums director, concluded after viewing the Goold collection that the archbishop had been “seriously misjudged” as a collector.

“There is great beauty and power in this work,” the present archbishop, Denis Hart, said, “which forms part of the wonderful efforts of Archbishop Goold in bringing some outstanding art to St Patrick’s in the early days of our archdiocese.”

It is not only Stella’s work that is undergoing a reassessment, but Goold’s connoisseurship. “The Melbourne archbishop’s translation of Italian religious art into Australia provides a new perspective on colonial culture in Australia,” Anderson says. “It’s not the usual narrative of convicts and gold.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Stella prize".

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Luke Slattery is a Sydney-based journalist and author. His latest book is the Penguin Special The First Dismissal.