The recently acquired Devout Men Taking the Body of Saint Stephen by Benjamin West is one of the largest paintings in the MFA’s collection, and, together with its towering frame, measures over 18 1/2 feet tall. Its dramatic presentation in Gallery 246 brings into focus the allure Italy had for artists and well-to-do travelers on the Grand Tour. A work by an American-born painter indebted to the lessons of Italian Renaissance art, West’s monumental altarpiece, completed in 1776, was originally installed in London’s St. Stephen Walbrook, a church designed by Christopher Wren. Here at the MFA the painting is joined by John Singleton Copley’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izard (1775), an American couple he painted while in Rome, which gives new context to Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s imaginary Picture Gallery with Views of Modern Rome (1757), painted for the French ambassador to the Vatican.
Over the past two years, Museum visitors have been able to witness the gradual process of cleaning and restoring West’s painting in the Conservation in Action studio, and its original gilded wood frame has also been conserved. Painting and frame will be reunited in an imposing new setting with West’s altarpiece as the focal point for new discussions about how works of art and artists traveled across borders both intellectual and geographical. Adding to the rich mix are paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts by English, Italian, French, and German artists.