Ecclesiae militantis triumphi.

Rome, ex officina Bartholomaei Grassi, 1585.


Small folio. Engraved architectural t-p with allegorical female figures holding crown, 31 handsome full-page engravings (with shorts captions above and below), all in striking period colouring, heightened in gold. A little paint abrasion to foot of t-p, light water stains, mostly to outer margins, worm trail to outer and upper margin affecting text but not images on several plates, various traces of repair, water stains and thumb soiling, mainly marginal. An extensively used copy in C19 quarter calf over marbled boards, spine gilt, brief ms. addition to pl. 30.

Scarce second edition of this major collection of engravings portraying the suffering of ancient martyrs—most unusually in striking period colouring, heightened in gold. It was the product of the indirect collaboration between Giovanni Battista Cavalieri (1525-1601), an engraver specialised in Roman antiquities and the history of the Church, and the painter Niccolò Circignani (1530-97), famously responsible for the outstanding frescoes depicting the martyrs of the primitive church in the Basilica di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio, the seat of the Jesuit German-Hungarian College in Rome, for the novices of which this work was intended. ‘Ecclesiae militantis triumphi’ turned Circignani’s works into an easily accessible collection of plates that could be used for meditation, presenting an image of sorrow accompanied by allegorical mottos or biblical quotes, and a few explanatory lines contextualising the image in history, using the reigns of Roman Emperors as reference points. The cycle begins with the uttermost martyrdom—Christ’s crucifixion—and continues with Sts Stephen, Paul, Thecla, Domitilla and dozens of others, all portrayed according to their final trial (beheading, burning, torn apart by lions, and, most famously, roasted alive inside a brass ox). The paintings and prints acted as ‘a visual counterpart to the recitations of the Litany of the Saints, readings of saints’ lives, and the Roman Martyrology, providing Jesuit novices with appropriate Christian “exempla”’—a devotional practice, that of the veneration of martyrs, which followed the doctrine of the Council of Trent (Noreen, ‘Jesuit Iconography’, 697). The owner of this copy was probably a Jesuit at the German-Hungarian College. Established in 1580, the German-Hungarian College hosted Jesuit novices in training for missions to Protestant northern Europe. He annotated plate 30, on African martyrs, with the names ‘Afra et Dafrosa’, two important saints. In particular, Afra, whose legend in the ‘Martyrologium Hieronymianum’ brought together the story of a repented German prostitute and the life of a martyr of Antioch, was patron saint of Augsburg and much venerated in Germany. A superb, powerfully coloured example of Counter-Reformation book illustration; coloured examples are rare.

BM STC It., p. 185 (1583 ed.); Mortimer, Harvard It., 125 (1584 ed.): Mortimer counts four states of the t-p of the two Grassi issues, this corresponding to the fourth; Brunet I, 1697; Adams AC2037. K. Noreen, ‘Ecclesiae militantis triumphi: Jesuit Iconography and the Counter-Reformation’, Sixteenth Century Journal 29 (1998), 689-715.


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