The canvas contains a number of different studies for a subject the artist, one of the most famous Italian painters in the second half of the 18th century, was commissioned by the Bishop of Foligno, Filippo Trenta. The Bishop more than once requested the services of Gandolfi when he was auditor of the Rota in Bologna, the second most important city in the Papal States and, when his new appointment took him to Umbria, he chose to continue assigning work on the altars of the local churches to Gandolfi. The task was to celebrate the saint who was asserted by popular piety to have banished the scourge of the plague. There was to be a lavish ex-voto , an altar painting of great size — and indeed the painting in the Cathedral of Foligno is more than five metres tall, although it was torn apart in the centre by a bomb in 1944 and has only partially been recovered — for a patron, Trenta, to whom the artist was linked by already three important works in Bologna. Others were to follow (Battista 1988; Biagi Maino 1995).
The great fame the painter enjoyed during his lifetime is easy to understand and indeed he was one of the most highly considered Italian artists. One element which should not be overlooked is the horrific detail of skeletal death being repulsed by the angel: this too shows how Gandolfi kept up with his times, always attentive to subjects and themes far removed from his school but already fashionable in painting north of the Alps.
Donatella Biagi Maino