Main page: The Fall of Simon Magus

How Batoni's masterpiece became his all-time low

  • Marina Boon - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences
  • Sietske Doorenbos - Faculty of Medicine
  • Evelien Zantingh - Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

The Story of Simon Magus Reflection on Art
Image 1: Batoni´s "Fall of Simon Magus" (1755)

Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787) was a successful painter in eighteenth century Rome, mainly praised for his portraits. Raised as the son of a goldsmith, he left his hometown Lucca and moved to Rome at the age of nineteen. The young man´s ambition was to become a history painter. Studying the paintings of Raphael (1483–1520) and Annibale Caracci (1560–1609) amongst others, Batoni was particularly interested in the early Roman Baroque style. [1]

His career reached its height during the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1675–1758), when he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Church of St. Peter in early 1746. [2] The congregation of the Reverenda della Fabbrica, responsible for the maintenance and decoration of the St. Peter´s, asked Batoni to paint the story of the fall of Simon Magus. Batoni was honoured, because he got an assignment which every other painter could only dream of. A mixture of motivation and perfectionism made that Batoni spent nearly 10 years of his life, thinking and drawing hundreds of sketches of the painting´s complex composition. [3] This was going to be his masterpiece!

Batoni finished the painting at issue, "The Fall of Simon Magus", in 1755 (see image 1). The painting was approved by the congregation of the Reverenda della Fabbrica and the project of translating it to a mosaic started. But then, only months after, when the to–be–masterpiece was in its final stage of production, the whole project was rejected. [3] What should have been Batoni´s masterpiece had suddenly become his all–time low.

Why did the Reverenda della Fabbrica cancel the project? Why did they reject the painting of a successful artist like Batoni? In this wikipage, we will discuss several hypothetical reasons and indicate their likelihood.

Discussion of possible reasons
Regime of the Church


Image 2: Self portrait of Batoni


Image 3: Interior of Santa Maria degli Angeli[13]

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (see image 2), one of the most appreciated painters during the Age of Enlightenment, was commissioned by the Reverenda della Fabbrica to paint an altarpiece for the St. Peter´s in early 1746. The altarpiece of Batoni was meant to replace a damaged painting dating from 1603. This damaged painting was made by Francesco Vanni (1563–1610) and depicted Simon Magus. [3] The Reverenda della Fabbrica commissioned Batoni to create a painting on the same subject: the fall of Simon Magus.

Simon Magus (also called Simon the Magician) is mentioned in the New Testament, in the book of Acts of the Apostles 8:9–24. Simon was a heretic who had been accused of blasphemy, since he tried to convince the apostles of selling him the gift of God. [4] In the scene, Simon is flying with the help of demons in order to convince the crowd of his power and divinity. St. Peter and St. Paul both pray to God, thereby causing the fall of Simon Magus. [5] The story about the heresy of Simon and his fall has been a subject of art since the Middle Ages. [6]

From 1746 until 1755, Batoni spent time on the Fall of Simon Magus. He took nearly ten years to perfect his painting by making hundreds of drawings in preparation of the highly complex composition. In 1755 he finished the painting and soon after it was exhibited in the Church of St. Peter´s, where the painting was ought to be placed. Soon after the exhibit the translation into mosaic started: a normal procedure in the St. Peter´s, since paintings would not last in an environment with such high humidity. [3]

The altarpiece of Batoni was about to become the crown on Batoni´s work. But in March 1756, when the moisaicking process was ongoing for nine months already, the Reverenda della Fabbrica decided to put the project to an end. In October 1757 the painting was moved to the Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Marteri, where it is still located today (see image 3). The Fabbrica´s resolution to fill up the blank space was to keep the painting of Vanni, of which they suddenly stated it was in ´very good condition´. [3]

What was the reason behind this seemingly abrupt decision? Why would the Fabbrica decide on abandoning this project after specifically giving Batoni the assignment for this purpose? Why would the Fabbrica cancel the project after investing money for many years? And what made the Fabbrica decide this nine months into the mosaicking?

Discussion of possible reasons

Image 4: Jan de Bisschops copy [14]

In the following text the following hypothetical reasons for abandonment of the project will be discussed and their likelihood will be estimated:

  • the subject of Simon Magus had become irrelevant
  • it was the result of financial problems of the church
  • a change in the papal regime led to rejection
  • Batoni was the victim of intrigue
  • there was a dislike of Batoni´s painting style amongst the public


Image 5: Trémolières´ copy

First, could the reason for abandoning Batoni´s work be its subject: Simon the Magician? In 1746, the congregation of the Reverenda della Fabbrica specifically asked Batoni to create an altarpiece on this story. [3] As mentioned before, the fall of Simon Magus has been depicted in art numerously. This demonstrates the importance of this subject for the church. Clearly, depicting the story of Simon Magus is an effective way to show people what ´true faith´ is. In 1746, the subject was apparently still of significant relevance for the Fabbrica to commission a new project on Simon the Magician.

Also in 1756, after abandoning of Batoni´s painting, the subject was still relevant: soon after cancelling the mosaicking, the painting of Vanni was placed back on its original spot. [3] The work of Vanni was not preserved, but the Dutch painter Jan de Bisschop (1628–1671) made a copy of Vanni´s work (see image 2). [3],[7] He wasn´t the only one: the French painter Pierre–Charles Trémolières (1703–1739) finished a copy of Vanni´s painting in 1736 (see image 3). Since Trémolières´ work is a copy, it can be seen as the representation of the original made by Vanni. Therefore, using the copy made by Trémolières, a comparison between Vanni´s work and Batoni´s work can be made. Since the painting that replaced Batoni´s work depicted the fall of Simon Magus as well, the subject could not have been the reason for the Fabbrica´s decision to reject the painting of Batoni.

The subpage reflection on art contains a detailed description of the composition and use of colour in Batoni´s and Trémolières´ paintings.


Since it was not the subject, could financial problems have been the issue? While Batoni was busy working on his masterpiece, the Fabbrica commissioned Placido Costanzi (1702–1759) to paint St. Peter raising Tabitha. Costanzi´s painting was meant to replace a damaged painting, but after Costanzi had finished his painting, it was neglected by the Fabbrica for several years. [8]

Oddly enough, just after the project of putting Batoni´s painting into a mosaic had been abruptly cancelled, the mosaicking of Costanzi´s painting was started! [8] If a lack of money was the reason behind cancelling the project of Batoni´s work, it would not have been possible to put the painting of Costanzi into mosaic either. Therefore, money could not have been the reason behind the decision of the Fabbrica.

Regime of the Church

Further research into possible reasons for abandonment revealed something remarkable: the mosaic St. Michael the Archangel was taken from the St. Peter´s and moved to another church. This event itself is not remarkable, but the date is: March 1756. [8],[9] This event, the cancellation of Batoni´s work and the start of the Constanzi´s mosaic took place in March 1756. The St. Peter´s is considered to be a very constant environment over time, so the fact that three changes in the decoration of the church occured in just one month time is remarkable.

Interestingly, the pope at that time, Benedict XIV (1675 –1758), had published an encyclical exactly on the 1st of March 1756. [10] One hypothesis, therefore, is that the Fabbrica´s decisions concerning these paintings were made because of papal influence. The papal encyclical could possibly contain restrictions for paintings and mosaics in the St. Peter´s. However, this encyclical does not contain any restrictions on art or anything that could be interpreted as being about art. Thus, this hypothesis has to be rejected as well.


Another explanation for the congregation cancelling the project could be –as Batoni himself suspected– intrigue. [3] It is unclear why Batoni thought he was a victim of intrigue, since there is not enough information about his personal life. Therefore, the hypothesis that intrigue led to Fabbrica´s decision to reject Batoni´s could be possible, although it is not very probable.


Some sources indicate that the style of Batoni´s painting could have been the reason for its rejection. But also this hypothesis gives rise to questions. After Batoni´s masterpiece was rejected, Batoni did not give up history painting. However, he never again produced such a major altarpiece for a Roman church, nor did he pursue private commissions for subject pictures with his previous enthusiasm. As a result of this, his history paintings became extremely expensive at the time, and were commissioned almost exclusively by the Church, European sovereigns and visiting nobility. Since people were willing to pay high prices, one can conclude that Batoni´s work was probably still popular. This means that it would be unlikely that people suddenly disliked Batoni´s style.

On the other hand, other sources indicate that style actually was the reason to abandon Batoni´s project. This is because the taste of art in the eighteenth century tended more towards the Classicist style than towards Baroque style. Even though Batoni is said to be an early classicist painter, the style of his work about Simon Magus was very dramatic and extravagant. Vanni´s painting tends to be a little more modest. We know this by using Trémolières´ copy as a representation of Vanni´s work since there are no images of Vanni´s original painting. In further investigation we also compare Batoni´s work to Trémolières for this reason.

When looking into the rhetoric function of Batoni´s and Trémolières´ paintings, we can discover differences in the representation of the story as a result of the style, which could also be an explanation why the style was the reason to abandon the project. According to Elsner, a work of art can have a rhetoric function as a mediating tool between commissioners, artists and the audience. [11] In this case, an artwork is meant as an answer to a question. It is possible that Batoni´s painting was not an answer to the question anymore. The subject of Batoni´s painting is the same as the subject of Vanni´s and Trémolières painting, but it could be the case that Batoni´s representation of the subject did not work anymore, whereas Vanni´s and Trémolières´ did.

The story of Simon Magus has often been used as a subject for paintings and there are many similarities in the representation of the story by different painters. However, the painter does have some freedom in the way of representing several aspects of the story. Comparing Batoni´s and Trémolières painting, there are clear differences in the representation, mediated in the style of the painting.

Batoni´s version Trémolières´ version

The representation of Saint Peter for instance, differs a lot between the paintings. Saint Peter is represented very distinct in Batoni´s painting. He is placed in a central position on the canvas and despite the busy composition, a lot of space is given to him. The light focuses on saint Peter and he is painted in bright colours. He makes dramatic gestures and is pointing down. In Trémolières´ painting on the other hand, Saint Peter is standing among other people and he does not stand out as much as he does in Batoni´s version. The light is mainly focussed on Simon Magus and on the people in the front. Saint Peter makes a gesture, but not as dramatic and obvious as in Batoni´s painting.

Simon Magus is painted in a similar place on both paintings. He is tumbling down with the demon, that just assisted him, by his side. The biggest difference in the depicted demons in both paintings is the black fiery sky behind Trémolières´ demons, while Batoni´s demons are depicted in front of a regular blue sky. It looks like Trémolières´ demons come straight out of hell. This provides a more negative impression of Simon Magus.

According to the story, Simon Magus would ascend to heaven to convince emperor Nero and the crowd of his Magic arts. Emperor Nero is painted on a very different spot in both paintings. In Batoni´s painting Nero is on the background and one would only notice him if he would know the story. In Trémolières´ painting however, he is painted on top of a building on a very prominent place, watching over the situation. Also the people and the surrounding in the painting look more involved in the scene in Batoni´s painting than in Trémolières´ painting. There is more light and more movement in these people. Therefore, they seem to play a more important role in the story than in Trémolières´ painting.

Putting it all together, the following differences in the representation of the story about Simon Magus stand out:

  • In Batoni´ painting, Saint Peter was represented as a far more important character. He looks actively involved in the scene and his presence is obvious.
  • Simon Magus was represented similarly in both paintings, but the black and fiery sky in Trémolières´ painting gives him a more negative impression.
  • Emperor Nero seems to be unimportant in Batoni´s painting, but very prominent in Trémolières´. Nero could be considered as one of the negative and ungodly persons in the story because one could say he urged Simon Magus to perform his magic arts. Besides this, it is very probable that the public has a negative association with Nero. Giving Nero a more prominent place in the painting about Simon Magus would therefore impose a more negative image on Simon Magus.

It seems like Batoni stresses the positive side of the story: he emphasizes Saint Peter, and uses bright colours. Trémolières seems to accentuate the negative aspects: he depicts hell, emphasizes Nero, and uses dark colours. It is very well possible that due to the differences in the representation, Batoni´s painting did not answer the question and Trémolières´ did. Possibly the question, the audience or the membership of the congregation had changed during the production of the painting, which could explain the cancelling of the project after so many years.


The reason for abandonment of "The fall of Simon Magus" by the congregation of the St. Peter´s is a mystery in history which might never be explained in its entirety. However, multiple hypotheses for the abandoning can be rejected.

It cannot be the case that the subject of Simon Magus was not relevant anymore, since the painting that replaced Batoni´s painting was of the same subject. Also, abandonment could not have been the result of the church´s financial difficulties, because in the exact same month the church rejected Batoni´s project, they gave permission to start another project. Nor is it plausible that a change in the papal regime could have led to rejection, since there is no evidence for any papal statements concerning art in the St. Peter´s or anything that can be interpreted to be about art. There is one book that claims that Batoni himself thought he had been victim of intrigue, but no further evidence for this claim was found. A dislike of Batoni´s painting style amongst the public or the congregation, therefore, is the hypothesis that seems most trustworthy.

Thus, after Batoni put all his effort in this work for a decade, and being confident that it would be appreciated, he was struck by a huge disappointment. Most probably due to the style of the painting, his work was rejected after all. He did not stop painting after this incident, but he lost his enthusiasm and motivation and did not produce as many and as grand works as he did before. This is how Batoni´s masterpiece became his all–time low.


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  4. Acts 8:9-24, New Testament. New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. ® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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  12. Image retrieved from this site, November 2015.
  13. Image retrieved from this site, November 2015.
  14. Image retrieved from this site, October 2015.