A Devotional Diorama in Wax, Silk, Paint and Glass, attributable to Caterina de Julianis

by Michael Riddick

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Fig. 01: Penitent St. Jerome in the Wilderness, here attributed to Caterina de Julianis, probably Naples, first decade of the 18th century

The art of modeling in polychrome wax rapidly translated to a scientific application during the late 17th and early 18th century. On account of its utilitarian function, the medium has largely been discounted as belonging to art historical discourse inasmuch as scientific history. However, the Baroque era initially professed the medium as an artful and esoteric curiosity.1 Evidence for this can be observed in the career of the most celebrated master of the genre, Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701), a self-taught monk who excelled in the art, leading to the patronage of Cosimo III de’ Medici in Florence, for whom he executed teatrini (little theaters) or dioramas depicting five stages of death and decomposition.2

Wax modeling and teatrini were one of the earliest attempts at hyper-realism and the beginnings of art as less static and more spectacular, inspiring wonder before the advent of photography and moving pictures. In particular, polychrome wax convincingly captures the texture and color of skin, and the malleability of the medium provides the possibility of intricate detail on a small scale. These sculptural works in wax, set deep into their frames created a shadowbox from which sculpture could emerge. Their small scale served only to enhance their intimacy, commanding the viewers’ attention and sparking imagination when one’s eyes set upon these little theaters.

Fig. 02: Time and Death, attributed to Caterina de Julianis (Victoria & Albert Museum, Inv. A.3-1966)

The present work. approximately 23 x 28 cm, depicting a Penitent St. Jerome in the Wilderness (Fig. 01) may be attributed to Caterina de Julianis on stylistic grounds. There is an immediate relationship observed between the character of Jerome and Father Time as featured in Caterina’s Time and Death3 (Fig. 02; Victoria & Albert Museum [V&A}, Inv. A.3-1966). The physiognomy is alike and the expression of both protagonists is commensurate (Fig. 03). However, finer details confirm her signature style. From a materials perspective, the polychrome of the flesh and hair use the same formulaic tones as observed on her signature works. The employ of glass eyes to capture expressive realism is alike as is the use of silk flowers and wax-modeled foliage sprouting from their environs with a painted backdrop on wood panel. Stylistically, the pursed brow, agitated eyes, agape mouth, featuring superbly modeled teeth, along with spiraling hair delineated by long striations are completely alike between the figure of Jerome and that of Father Time in an Allegory of Time at the Chiesa dell’Immacolata in Catanzaro (Fig. 04). The emaciated figure of Jerome’s exposed back recalls also the anatomical character of the right-most attendant in her Adoration of the Shepherds also at Catanzaro (Fig. 05). Likewise comparable is the figure of the bull within her Adoration and that of the deer in the diorama of Jerome, which would have hovered over the back of a prostrate lion, now lost. The characteristic animal hair, formed by striations in the wax which are lengthy and densely packed is relatable (Fig. 06). Lastly, there is an apparent correlation between the book and skull in the Jerome and those featured similarly on her autograph Mary Magdalene in Adoration from 1717 (Fig. 07).

Fig. 03: Detail of Time and Death (left, V&A); Detail of St. Jerome (right)
Fig. 04: Detail of Father Time in an Allegory of Time (left, Catanzaro); Detail of St. Jerome (right)
Fig. 05: Detail of an attendant, Adoration of the Shepherds (left, Catanzaro); Detail of St. Jerome (right)

Many of Caterina’s works are lost or have been destroyed over time,4 though some survivals are known, most notably those already discussed at the Church of the Immaculate in Catanzaro, Italy. These works were recently restored and exhibited to much praise and success. The V&A has also recently shed light on this art-form and Caterina’s work via their exhibit, Welcome to Hell, which showcased also the work of her celebrated mentor, Gateano Giulio Zumbo.

Though Caterina operated under the auspices of Zumbo for about 15 years, she yet blossomed with her own distinctive appeal and approach to the art form. Vittorio Sgarbi – referring to the works in Catanzaro – summarized as follows: “What in Zumbo was dramatic and deadly is in the Julianis imaginative, vivid, cheerful; but both aspire to marvel with their parallel worlds, with different expressive tensions.”5

Fig. 06: Detail of the Adoration of the Shepherds (left, Catanzaro); Detail of St. Jerome (right)
Fig. 07: Detail from Mary Magdalene in Adoration (left, Cavallini Sgarbi coll.); Detail of St. Jerome (right)

Apart from her dramatically complex compositions in large scale, like those in Catanzaro, she also specialized in scenes of saints. One example is her previously cited Magdalene in Adoration belonging to the Cavallini Sgarbi collection. Of similar scale to the Jerome is also the Jerome in the Desert in Harvard University’s Museum (Inv. 1966.80). The diorama is alike in its simplicity, relying on a painted background with wax surrounds to build-up the scene.

In 1820, Giovanni Battista Gennaro Grossi, published a brief biography of Caterina’s work, noting she had made herself famous for the formation of natural silk flowers, adding the scent of the species to which they belonged,6 7 indicative of her devotion and dedication to hyper-realism and a multi-sensory experience.

The present Jerome was likely executed at the time-of-or leading-up-to her more masterfully staged dioramas.8 It anticipates the more eloquent realizations of the winged Father Time depicted in her teatrini of an Allegory of Time in Cantanzaro and Time and Death at the V&A.

The present composition would belong to those types Caterina developed early in her career for use in private homes and for private devotion.9 10


Polychromed wax, silk, paint, in contemporary wooden box and original gilt and punchwork frame. Condition commensurate with age (damages, and various restorations, recent and old). Lacking the lion and possible other attributes, like the Cardinal’s hat, hour-glass or crucifix.

Technical observations:

Evidence of restorations show that the figure suffered breakage along joints, particularly below the knees and ankles, as observed on damages also occurring on the figure of Father Time in Catanzaro’s Allegory of Time, recently restored.

If not an old repair, it’s possible Caterina modeled her figures in sections not unlike wax modelers of the previous century, casting and assembling appendages, or portions thereof, from generic molds and separately fixing them to a torso. Old metal armatures emerge from broken joins which suggest evidence of this (Fig. 08).

Fig. 08: Detail from restoration of St. Jerome
Fig. 09: Exterior of St. Jerome

Lastly, Caterina’s preparation of boxes appears to logically prefer a long plank for the base, intended for stability, with the sides being inset between the lower and upper boards (Fig. 09). She also evinces a preferred depth of about 15 cm within which to create her art, as observed also on two dioramas depicting the life of Saint Francesco Saverio (see endnote 9).


1. For a brief discussion concerning the Baroque appreciation for esoteric wax models see Jane Eade (2013): The Theatre of Death. Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 109-125.

2. Zumbo’s teatrini were formerly in the Medici Palace, now displayed at the Museo della Specola, Florence.

3. The V&A’s Time and Death is thought to be a lost work of Caterina’s from the Church of Saint Severo al Pendino in Naples which disappeared in 1944, later appearing in the collection of Armando Brassini and eventually sold by his heirs to the V&A in 1966.

4. Caterina’s lost or destroyed works include her earliest dated and signed piece, a Virgin and Child made in 1695 from the Russo collection that was exhibited in 1877 at the National Exhibition of Fine Arts; her work involving a ‘cemetery scene’ was thought destroyed in WWII but is the Time and Death now preserved at the V&A; a Bust of Saint Gennaro that Caterina signed and dated in 1708, formerly in the civic collection of Gaetano Filangieri, was indeed destroyed during WWII.

5. Prof. Vittorio Sgarbi (2015): exh., Arte ceroplastica barocca a Catanzaro. Le cere di Caterina De Julianis.

6. Giovanni Battista Gennaro Grossi (1820): Le belle arti, Volumes 1-2, Naples; p. 199.

7. A July 27 1735 document in the archives of the Banco di Napoli records an order of 40 ducats worth of silk flowers delivered to Caterina.

8. The idea that Caterina’s small devotional works precluded her larger dioramas was forwarded by E. J. Pyke (1973): A Biographical Dictionary of Wax Modellers. Oxford, UK.

9. Bernardo de Dominici comments on commissions Julianis received from the nobles and wealthy bourgeoisie who kept her works in their bedrooms for daily prayers. See B. de Dominici (1743): Vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti napoletani, p. 621.

10. Other examples of her devotional dioramas include a larger Penitent Magdalene formerly with Galleria Carlo Virgilio & Company in Rome (53.7 x 59 cm); the Harvard Art Museums Jerome, already discussed (20 x 24.7 cm); and two signed and dated (1703) dioramas from a series depicting the life of St. Francesco Saverio (33 x 44 x 15 cm), inclusive of An Apparition of the Virgin (formerly in a Naples private collection) and a Death of the Saint (illustrated in Roberto Valeriani [1984]: Civilta del Seicento a Napoli, 2 vols. catalogo della Mostra, Napoli, Museo di Capodimonte, 24 October 1984 – 14 April 1985 and Museo Pignatelli, 6 December 1984 – 14 April 1985).

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