Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Saint Cajetan (St. Gaetano Thiene)

Sally Metzler
Chicago, Illinois, United States


Theatiner Church
Theatiner Church, Munich
Theatiner Church
Theatiner Church, Munich
Saint Cajetano
Saint Gaetano comforting a dying patient
Sebastiano Ricci
Brera Pinacoteca, Milano

The cupola and two towers of the Theatiner Church in Munich rise high against the backdrop of the Alps in memory of Saint Cajetan. He is the patron saint of Argentina and of the unemployed, beatified in 1629 and canonized in 1671. His feast day is celebrated on August 7. Born into an Italian aristocratic family in Vicenza, Saint Cajetan (Gaetano dei Conti di Tiene, 1480-1547) had studied law and became a diplomat but later decided to dedicate his life to care for the poor and the sick—contrary to the wishes of his mother. As his father had died in 1492, she had hoped her son would continue the family dynasty. But Cajetan did rise in ecclesiastical circles, garnering the favor of Pope Julius II for his role in negotiating the peace between the Republic of Venice and the Holy See after the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516).

Ordained a priest in 1516, in 1522 he founded a hospital for the incurables in Vicenza, first working there and then spending the rest of his life in charitable work in Rome, Naples, Venice, and Verona. In 1524 Cajetan helped found a male religious order, the Theatines, devoted to leading a pure life in the service of the sick and reforming by example the morals of the clergy and laiety. In another act of charity, he established a bank for the purpose of lending money at low interest rates to the poor; this bank grew to become the Bank of Naples.

Over the centuries the Theatine order has counted among its members many distinguished persons. It was instrumental in founding hospitals, oratories, and beautiful churches throughout western Europe, developing missions in Asia and the Americas, and to a lesser degree remaining active to this day.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734) was one of the great painters of the late Baroque school of Venice. He revived Venetian art from a dormant phase that followed the Renaissance heyday of legendary masters Bellini, Titian, and Veronese. His art and life were steeped in drama—affairs of the heart in particular would plague him. In his youth he seems to have had a checkered career, accused and imprisoned for allegedly attempting to poison a young woman with whom he had fathered an unwanted pregnancy, later again imprisoned after abandoning his wife and daughter and running away with another young woman. He worked in Bologna, Turin, Rome, Venice, and London. His paintings, admired in many great museums of the world, showcase his talent for virtuoso manipulation of color.

In Saint Gaetano comforting a dying patient, Ricci shows Cajetan in his traditional role of comforting the sick. Typical Baroque compositional tropes enliven an otherwise conservative work. Saint Cajetan’s attenuated limbs stretch diagonally across much of the canvas, creating a sense of motion and energy. Visually, Ricci builds a tension between upward and downward; the Saint raises his right arm and points towards the heavens, while he drops his left arm and hand at a perpendicular to comfort the sick, bedridden man. One senses the gravity of the ill patient, not just by his wizened, frail body, but by the distraught boy—likely his son—praying at his bedside.

Ricci’s flair for drama is apparent in this poetic, pious painting. In addition to the use of diagonals, a standard device of Baroque-era painters, Ricci also exploits dramatic lighting, infusing strong contrasts between light and dark. The stark white sheets of the bed and the pale skin of the sick man are juxtaposed against the voluminous black frock of Saint Cajetan—here a striking, looming figure. Small touches of domesticity are visible, such as the embroidery on the pillowcase and an ornate, silver water pitcher with a red stopper placed on the nightstand.



SALLY METZLER, PhD, interned at the Alte Pinakotek in Munich, obtained her PhD in Art History from Princeton University, and worked at the National Gallery in Washington DC and the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida. She was director of the D’Arcy Museum of Loyola University in Chicago and in 2014 curated an exhibition on Bartholomeus Spranger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2016 – Volume 8, Issue 2 and Highlighted Vignette Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022
Spring 2016  |  Sections  |  Art Flashes

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