Shero paintings to sparkle at HKMoA's The Road to the Baroque exhibition

For the first time ever, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) has collaborated with the Capodimonte Museum to bring 40 Baroque masterpieces from Italy to Hong Kong, allowing local art lovers to be immersed in the charm and magnificence of Baroque art.

The Capodimonte Museum in Naples is one of the largest and most famous museums in Italy. Owning some of the finest collections of Italian paintings around the globe, it attracts over 1 million attendants per year. 

While paintings by legendary Baroque masters are shown in the exhibition, not to be missed is a rare painting by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of a few successful woman painter of her time, who depicted Bible heroine from the often-ignored female perspective. 

Artemisia Gentileschi's painting featured on the exhibtion's poster

Bernardo Cavallino, Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy, 183 x 129 cm

Luca Giordano, Perseus and Medusa, 300 x 220 cm

The exhibition

Emerged in Italy, Baroque is another important period in the Western art after the Renaissance. Dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th century, Baroque art is characterized by the stark contrast, rich deep colours, energetic compositions and exaggerated movement of the figures – all served to provoke emotion and inspire awe.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church was corrupted from the Pope down. While several attempts had been made to reform and purify the Church, the final blow was dealt by the Protestant Reformation. 

The Protestants were particularly opposed to idolatry, arguing that artworks based on biblical stories were in violation of the God’s Law. They therefore stormed the Church by destroying thousands of sacred sculptures and paintings from the churches and even the nobles’ houses.

In response, the Catholic Church formed a Counter-Reformation. Hoping to reinvigorate its spirit, the Church decided to bring images of religious worship back into the public eye and began commissioning monumental artworks that parried Protestant austerity with appeal to emotion. The result is Baroque art, an age of grandeur and intense drama. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Her Maidservant Abra with the Head of Holofernes, 272 x 221 cm

In a time when women weren't allowed to enter traditional artistic training system, Artemisia Gentileschi is one of the first and very few women to forge a successful career as a painter. Under his father's teaching, she shrone through all the restrictions with her unmatched talent in dramatic yet elegant handling of lighting, and distinctive ability to depict both the physical bodies as well as psychological states of her women subjects. 

Portraying the story of Judith and Holofernes from the Old Testament Book of Judith, Judith and Her Maidservant Abra with the Head of Holofernes is one of her four paintings on this subject matter. Through this painting, Gentileschi tells a tale of female revenge and solidarity.

The heroine Judith is a Jewish widow renowned for her beauty and charm. With courage and faith in God, she and her maidservant Abra saved her besieged city by assassinating the enemy’s leader, Holofernes. In the original story, Abra was to be waiting outside the general’s tent. Gentileschi, however, brings Abra inside the tent and makes her a vital accomplice, wrapping Holofernes' bloody head in cloth.

Gentileschi’s unique portrayal of Judith and Abra perhaps stems not only from their shared gender, but also her traumatic experience. At the age of 17, Gentileschi, already a promising painter, was raped by her father's close friend, Agostino Tassi. After taking Gentileschi's virginity, he refused to marry her – because he had a wife. 

Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria | collection of the National Gallery, London

When her father sued the rapist, it was Gentileschi, but not Tassi, who had to testify under tortune, with loops of string tightened around her fingers, a practice putting her future livelihood as a painter at risk. She, however, remained utterly defiant and underterred, and claimed ironically: “This is the ring that you give me, and these are your promises.” 

During the trial, she recalled her attempt to attack Tassi with a knife and how she was betrayed by her female chaperone, who arranged to leave the two alone — likened to the story of Judith, except Abra was her right-hand woman. In the end, though Tassi was convicted, he never served his sentence, thanks to his friend in the high papal places. 

Shadowed by shame, Gentileschi left Rome and travelled throughout Italy, seeking revenge on the patriarchal system through art – the only way she knew to vent her emotions.

Francesco Guarino, Saint Agatha, 87 x 72 cm

Another shero story portrayed is Saint Agatha by Francesco Guarino. The dim light and looming shadows, the woman’s facial expression and the bleeding wound on her chest – altogether they achieved a heightened sense of drama, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense.

Born in Sicily in 231 AD, Saint Agatha dedicated her life to God from a young age. Lived as a consecrated virgin, she promised to be a ‘bride of Christ’ and remained single. While she continuously refused suitors, she could not escape Quintian, the prefect of her city at the time, who imprisoned and tortured Agatha after being rejected several times.  

Under imprisonment, Agatha was stretched on a rack to be torn with iron hooks, burned with torches and whipped, even her breasts were brutally cut off. Faced with possible death, Agtha simply reaffirmed her belief through prayers. Bible has it that during her suffering, St. Peter the Apostle appeared to her and healed her wounds. After martyred, Saint Agatha was commemorated by name in the Canon of the Mass and also the patron saint of breast cancer patient.

Jusepe de Ribera, Apollo and Marsyas, 180 x 232 cm

Chow Chun-fai, Kwan Kung and Alien, Photo installation

Alongside the 40 paintings, HKMoA has also invited three local artists to provide artistic responses with various creative media to the works of the Baroque masters, enriching the exhibition with a Hong Kong perspective.

Visual artist Chow Chun-fai, for instance, reinterprets Baroque characters with photography installations, introducing elements of local culture to Baroque art for a dazzling fusion of East and West. Also featured are Baroque music and soundscapes that take audience on an immersive experience, created by Johny Poon, Associate Vice-President and Founding Dean of the School of Creative Arts of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Marcello Venusti, The Last Judgment (copy after Michelangelo), 188 x 145 cm

El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), Boy Blowing on an Ember, 60.5 x 50.5 cm

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Danaë, 118.5 x 170 cm

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Portrait of Pope Paul III with the Camauro, 126.5 x 103 cm

Exhibition Details:
Name: The Hong Kong Jockey Club Series: The Road to the Baroque - Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum
Venue: 2/F, Special Gallery, Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA)
Date: 15 Jul - 2 Nov 2022 

  • Monday to Wednesday, Friday: 10:00am – 6:00pm
  • Saturday, Sunday and public holiday: 10:00am – 7:00pm
  • Christmas Eve and Chinese New Year's Eve: 10:00am – 5:00pm
  • Closed on Thursdays (except public holiday) and the first two days of the Chinese New Year

Admission: $10 (Standard) | $7 (Group) | $5 (Concessionary) | Free (Museum Pass)