The Downfall of the Sorcerer Hermogenes by Luca d'Ussula

Jacek Dehnel By Jacek Dehnel

The painting, originally made for the predella of St Frido’s altar in the Observant Franciscan church in Pistoia, came to Rome in unclear circumstances. In his monumental monograph, Früh-Renaissance der Italienischer Malerei (Basel, 1895) Bürckberg says that as a result of conflict between the houses of Ghirerdini and Tommasi families, the Ghirerdini grave chapel was plundered by troops led by the famous condottiere, Sigismondo Malabraccio, who then sold the stolen altar to the cardinal Pompeo Caraffa, later to become Pope Hadrian VI. The cardinal didn’t enjoy d’Ussula’s work for long, as in 1527, during the Sack of Rome, the painting, along with many other works of art, was taken away from his palace in Via Colomei by the soldiers of Charles V and ended up in the private collection of general Heinrich von Amstein. Maybe it was then that the forged signature Pier. Lorenz. Pinx. was added to the bottom left-hand corner.

Łukasz HuculakŁukasz HuculakŁukasz HuculakŁukasz HuculakŁukasz Huculak

In 1581 the altar, together with a statue of Annelise von Amstein, became the property of the ducal family Łaskałło and was kept in the Szypniany castle until 1658, when Jarema Łaskałło donated it to the Jesuit monastery in Kuszmianiec. After the dissolution of the order d’Ussula’s work disappeared for a while and resurfaced in the collection of Count Samowilcew (the inventory of the Samowilcews’ palace in Fontanka erroneously describes item 253a as an Italian altar in the Gothic style, by Lorenzetti, showing the story of St. James and the magus Hermes). In 1872 in Nice Mikhail, Count Samowilcew, gambled away his collection of Italian paintings, losing it to Jean Bautrin, a coach manufacturer from Combiers; the Dutch collection was won by William Howdrey, Lord Fitzpaul, the eighth marquis Legstrong. Bautrin divided the altar into six parts, which he sold separately to several collectors as original works by Lorenzetti. It was then that the whole predella came into the possession of the duke de Fontelles, who – following Bergotte’s advice – had it thoroughly restored in the workshop of Pierre Brideau. Along with additions painted over the original painting (including two women on the left, attributed to Biccio di Parma), the Lorenzetti signature was removed. (The attribution to Lorenzetti had already been questioned by Chabrel in his monograph.) Devastated by the loss of his Lorenzetti, duke Armand de Fontelles sold the predella, for a fraction of the sum he had paid to the Combiers factory owner, to the count Robert de Montesquiou–Fezensac, who put it in his legendary boudoir in his residence in Boulevard de Latour-Maubourg. D’Ussula’s painting, according to contemporary accounts, hung on a narrow wall between Salome by Moreau and a piece of black velvet on which a collection of enamelled crosiers from Limoges was displayed. According to Celeste Albaret, the painting was the model for the „charming Italian picture” which Swann admires during his last visit to the Baron the Charlus’ towards the end of the third volume of In Search of Lost Time.

After Robert Montesquiou’s death the predella was inherited by a young violinist, of whom little is known besides the fact that he divided the whole board into four smaller pictures, of which one ended up in Berlin, one in the Louvre, and a third one remained in the Paris palace of the Rothschild family until 1940, when it was seized by German troops and probably perished in a fire in Berlin five years later. The fourth scene – The Downfall of the Sorcerer Hermogenes - was purchased for the collection of John Fitzgerald Brown III, an American industrialist from New York, who sold it after Brown Inc. went bankrupt in 1926. Since then the painting has not turned up on the auction market; it was even suspected to have been destroyed; therefore its sudden emergence at the September auction at Sotheby’s aroused understandable interest among the collectors of early Italian Renaissance art.

The Downfall of the Magus Hermogenes

Top panel of the left wing of the St James triptych from the Dominican monastery on Monte Oliveto near Otranto

In those days, writes St. Procopius from Narses, there lived in the Cilician land a sorcerer, Hermogenes, who, having sold his soul to demons, worked great miracles and gained followers among the rabble. When Saint James came to the gates of Cilicia, he learned in the house of a certain pious woman, called Asparchia, that Hermogenes mocked the Christians and the holy men. Therefore, having put on bright clothes, St James went to the forum, where men bought and sold cattle, and said he was a rich merchant from Bithynia. The disciples of the other [Hermogenes], hoping to make some money, led him to their master, who swore that for two hundred talents of silver he would rise into the air in the presence of the multitude. He stood on a hill by Atreides’ tomb, he uttered a spell and flew up. Then St. James, still clad in a merchant’s clothes, knelt by a wooden chest, which served him as an altar, and began to pray. And suddenly a great cry arose from among the people, for the demons that were carrying Hermogenes appeared visibly by his side; and immediately they let go of him and flew away; the sorcerer’s robes went up in a bright flame; naked he fell into the sea and was drowned. His body became the food of fish and water snakes.

This story can’t have been told any other way: the vast sea is a purplish grey; on the shore the tomb of Apollodoros Atreides; in the distance, the enormous ruins of the temple of the Eumenides on the island of Paxos, which three days earlier sank into the cold sea after having been cursed by St. James; now only water snakes and evil spirits reside there, and at night green fires glow, lighting the broken columns and chipped statues of gods.

But it’s daytime now and pale, cool daylight falls on the dome of the tomb, on the distant walls, on the sand and the robes of the alleged Bithynian merchant, who is knelling at the foot of the improvised altar. He has drunk the sacrificial wine, turned the chalice and placed it upside down on the chest. It’s empty around: the demons are already safely outside the painting, all the followers of the charlatan have scattered on the beach, James’ disciples have not arrived yet – they’re now learning of their magus’s triumph over the other one. There are only those two: the saint dressed up in a pink jerkin and a crimson hat, which hides the golden halo – and the magus, naked and real in his defeat. He seems to be looking over his shoulder as if waiting for the gods that he’d worshipped in vain to deliver him. The colour of his skin is like the skin of one that’s numb with cold; his body has the shape of a drowned man’s body.

The Ascension of the Magus Hermogenes

Votive painting from the secret collection of the sect of Barbelognostics in Piacenza.

In The Heretic Hammer Fulvio da Piombino quotes a passage from the lost Life of the Holy Man Hermogenes of Cilicia by Strato: When he felt his life coming to an end, the holy man Hermogenes put himself in the care of the governor of the province, Poros, and lived in his house, where he received his disciples and had his last debates with them. After two months he gave his whole library to Poros, and also all his teachings, which had been written down by scribes on the condition that they should be made available to anyone who was thirsting for knowledge and wished to drink at that source. Then he went alone outside the city walls, near the deserted shrine of Isis, and performed the last rites. Finally, taking off his mitre, he went down on one knee, lifted his head slightly and held out one arm. Then a voice was heard on high: “Hermogenes, my son and faithful servant, you are now returning to the house of your Lord and Father.” Many disciples, some of them standing at the windows of Poros’ palace, some in the port, others in other parts of the town, beheld his soul, completely naked and pure, as it was taken to heaven; and they all ran unto one place and told the tidings to one another, and they marvelled greatly.

This story can’t have been told any other way: a tall grey wall; by the wall Isis’ shrine, empty and locked up, above it the distant gables of the palace of Poros, patron of the arts, protector of poets, friend to mages and seers. One who is friendly with those who see must live either in constant vexation, awaiting the calamities foretold to him, or in immoderate joy, being certain of a long life. Poros, however, is a wise man, who neither worries nor rejoices excessively, maintaining moderation in all things, as befits a believer.

Hermogenes is kneeling, as Strato describes it and Fulvius repeats after him, on one knee, with his head uplifted and his arm held out, so it would seem that we’re seeing a living man, but in fact it is only an empty shell, a drained wine-skin, an empty oil lamp, meat hanging on the frail skeleton of a mortal. What used to be Hermogenes is not him any more – he is going upwards, fast, like a bead pulled up on a thread, like a pink cake lifted on an invisible string.

Hermogenes is now a pure soul. His soul is naked, young and shapely, for goodness is rewarded with beauty; he’s lifting his incorporeal arms, worshipping everything: the sea and the sky, and the land, and the stupidity of his disciples and his persecutors; it turns its incorporeal head, as if looking with pity on all those who have not been given such wisdom.

Selected works

see all