A Case of Mistaken Identity Solved

UC Riverside art history professor corrects Getty Museum on misidentified Renaissance sculpture

The Simon of Trent bust is located at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) – She felt like a detective. Digging through notes and photos, asking for curatorial files, and doing research on child martyrs. She did all of this because as she gazed at the marble bust of a little boy at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles something just didn’t fit for Jeanette Kohl, chair of the art history department at the University of California, Riverside.

Turns out, Kohl’s instincts were correct, and the 15th century bust titled “Saint Cyricus” does not depict the child martyr, but rather a different child, Simon of Trent, who disappeared on Easter of 1475 and was soon found dead. Given Kohl’s thorough research, the Getty plans to change the label and identification of the important sculpture by the end of 2016.

Background and research

Kohl was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute from September to December of 2014, doing research for her book on bust portraits titled, “Facing Objects.” During her fellowship, Kohl had the opportunity to talk to the Getty Museum’s curators, work with resources in the Research Institute, consult the files in the curatorial department, and speak with conservators in the Getty Conservation Institute. She spent hours in front of the “Saint Cyricus” bust – a highly unusual object – trying to make sense of its unique and irritating looks.

Jeanette Kohl

Jeanette Kohl

“There were a few indications for me – first, the length of the bust is much longer than most of those made during that era. This one is cut off below the belly; most others are reduced to the head, shoulders and the upper part of the chest. Second, the portrayed child’s face differs considerably from children’s portraits of the period. Rather than looking cheerful, chubby, and cute, this little boy clearly looks sick or like a portrait of a dead child with its eyes open. That’s very uncommon during the Italian Renaissance,” explained Kohl.

And there are other reasons why the label “Saint Cyricus” doesn’t fit the profile – there are few other works of art showing this particular saint in Italy in the Renaissance period; the child martyr died at the hands of the Romans in the 3rd century, so why produce a costly marble sculpture in the 15th century? “There was no prominent, active cult around Saint Cyricus, so it’s unlikely that he would be the main focus of a work of art the quality of the piece at the Getty,” said Kohl.

As Kohl continued with her research, she came across the condition report for the proposed acquisition of the bust, written 1995. “There were things that stood out to me. For example, it was noted that the sculpture was in good condition, but it had been repaired at the neck,” Kohl said. “The report noted three other areas of damage: ‘at the proper left cheek, the proper left side of forehead, and the nose. These areas are covered with fill material and over-paint. The fill at the cheek is lifting and cracked. There are approximately thirty small, dark pit marks across the chest and also scattered across the top of the head.’”

While trying to crack the case, Kohl reached out to a friend in Germany – a leading expert in pediatric cranial surgery. She wanted his first impressions of the bust. Dr. Joerg-Elard Otten formulated what she had already suspected: the bust looks like an image of a very sick child, or a dead child who was being made to look alive; the child was probably between 20 to 28 months old; there was a discrepancy between the temple and eye region and the full cheeks; and the body of the bust was not as chubby and child-like as the face.

The story of Simon of Trent

A close-up of the Simon of Trent bust.

A close-up of the Simon of Trent bust.

After receiving those notes from Dr. Otten, it just so happened that while Kohl was doing research for her book, she came across an image and the story of Simon of Trent, a 2-year-old Christian boy from Trent, Italy, who was found dead in the cellar of a Jewish family’s house on Easter of 1475. The Jewish men and women of the town were accused of torture, strangulation and bleeding the infant to death in order to use his blood for the preparation of the Passover bread. In a series of interrogations, which involved liberal use of judicial torture, police officers forced the confessions of the Jewish men. Eight were executed in late June, and another committed suicide in jail.

Meanwhile, Simon became the focus of veneration for the local Catholic Church, his body put in a display case. The local bishop pushed for canonization of “Saint” Simon, attributing over 100 miracles to Saint Simon within a year of his death. An unprecedented cult spread across Italy, Austria and Germany. The “saint” was eventually considered a martyr and became a patron of kidnap and torture victims.

It took almost 300 years until, in 1758, Pope Clement XIV cleared the Jews of Trent of the murder of Simon. Pope Paul VI removed Simon from the Calendar of Saints and abolished his cult in 1965. Practically all signs of it were erased from the city, and little Simon’s body was buried in an unknown place. His name does not appear in the newer Roman Martyrologies, nor on any modern Catholic calendar – given the violent, anti-semitic nature of the 1475 blood libel and the wave of anti-semitism it triggered in early modern Italy, Germany, and Austria.

Connecting the dots

A bust of a boy from circa 1460 by Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano. Notice the difference in the demeanor of the boy when compared to Simon of Trent. <b>Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery, Washington</b>

A bust of a boy from circa 1460 by Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano. Notice the difference in the demeanor of the boy when compared to Simon of Trent. Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery, Washington

Images and artworks depicting Simon, often called Simonino (little Simon) all have similarities with the bust at the Getty Museum. Characteristic of Simon’s iconography –the hallmarks of his martyrdom – are the punctures around the chest and forehead (from allegedly being pierced by the Jews with needles), a “suture” around the neck (from alleged strangulation), the indented – and later filled – cheek (from alleged torture with pliers ripping flesh out of his check). The cheek wound served as the most visible authentication of his martyrdom: witnesses report that as late as in the 1890s, the wound in the boy’s cheek was still visible on the corpse in his crystal display coffin. The filled hole in the bust’s cheek, the fact that the bust looks “ill” or like “a dead child made to look alive,” the punch holes on his chest and forehead, and the suture marks all fit within the story frame and iconography of “Saint” Simon.

“It all just started to click,” said Kohl. “The Getty purchased the sculpture in 1995 from a big auction house, who received the commission from a private collection in Paris where the bust was since the mid-1960s – which coincides exactly with the time the cult was abolished and artworks and images of Simon were done away with.”

Kohl presented her case to the Getty, where it was met with approval by the museum’s curator, Anne-Lise Desmas. She is currently writing an article to be published in the Getty Research Journal, and as a result the label of the bust will be replaced. The sad-looking toddler will regain its original name –Simon of Trent – and the Getty can now boast a major art object that gives a face to one of the most brutal and consequential blood libels of the European Renaissance.

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Additional Contacts

Jeanette Kohl
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E-mail: jeanette.kohl@ucr.edu

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