Italian. Circa 1800.


Height: 43" (109 cm)
Width: 57" (144.5 cm)
Depth: 4" (10cm)
Height: 36" (91.5 cm)
Width: 49 1/2" (125.5 cm)


Oil on canvas.

This painting, which depicts a Vestal Virgin condemned to death for breaking her vow of chastity, appears to be the preliminary study or modello for a similar version by Pietro Saja (1779-1833) that hangs in the Palazzo Reale in Caserta, near Naples (figure 1). Like the Caserta example, the present painting portrays a Vestal reclining morosely in a small chamber after having received the sentence of burial alive. A loaf of bread and ewer rest on the floor and a lamp shines from the opening of the window. The composition and lighting of the two paintings are very similar, although there are some significant differences. These include the position of the Vestal’s veil, the placement of the drapery and the shape of the bed, and the positions of the vases at the foot of the bed and on the windowsill.

In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins were a select group of women chosen as girls to become priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth. They were required to take a vow of chastity and service for 30 years, and were tasked with protecting the sacred fire of Vesta and making preparations for rituals in her temple, and as such, their role was regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. Along with these noble tasks came a number of privileges not afforded to other women. A Vestal’s person was sacrosanct, and the penalty for injuring one of Vesta’s priestesses was death. They held the right to own property and vote, were escorted by lictors, and given places of honor at public events. Vestals were also entrusted with important official documents and had the power to free prisoners from condemnation to death.

However, should a Vestal neglect her duties or break her vows the resulting punishment would be severe. For small offenses or letting the sacred fire burn out, a Vestal was whipped, but for breaking the vow of chastity a Vestal was condemned to be buried alive. Plutarch describes the cell into which is “placed a bed, a lighted lamp, and some slight provisions, such as bread, water, milk, and oil…because they thought it was not lawful to kill any person who had been consecrated with the most holy and religious ceremonies in the world.” The Vestal was led down a set of stairs to her cell and, once inside, the steps were removed and the opening sealed with earth.

While in Naples, Saja attended the Accademia di Belli Arti in Naples, studying under the German artist Tischbein. He was sponsored by the king of Naples to go to Rome, where the painting apparently won the artist great praise and recognition when he presented it in 1803. Within a month Saja was invited to join the prestigious Accademia di San Luca. It is probable that the present work was executed to gain entry into the academy, where he later became a professor, while the version in Palazzo Reale was sent back as a gift to thank the king. Saja was very highly thought of and artists such as neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova studied and admired his work. Canova, another member of the Academy, wrote to a friend to “make many praises of [Saja]… assuring me that he is a youth of highest ability… and that he is going to make great profit and progress.”1

1. Cassani, Silvia, ed. Civiltà dell’Ottocento: Le Arti Figurative. Naples: Electa Napoli, 1997. 433, Fig. 17.1.

Full research report available on request.