Painting of the Day

15 Mar


Christ Carrying the Cross. by Circle of Giovanni Bellini. Oil on wood, ca. 1505-1510. Currently on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Titian Room, Boston.

Notes from

In the late fifteenth century, new types of private devotional pictures emerged in Italy. This painting is innovative in its depiction of strong emotion to aid prayer and meditation. The subject has been excerpted from narrative representations of Christ carrying the cross to Mount Calvary. However, lacking distracting details or any indication of setting, this image focuses instead on the tear-streaked face of Christ, who stares out at us melancholically, as well as the knotty wood cross over which he casts a shadow. It is an intimate and intensely personal depiction of a suffering more emotional than physical. This type of dramatic close-up was perfected by Giovanni Bellini, who was influenced by devotional images derived from the work of Leonardo da Vinci. This work is in turn based on a composition by Bellini (recorded in a painting in the Toledo Art Museum), and was made by a close follower of the artist, perhaps Vincenzo Catena (ca. 1470–1531).

When Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased the painting in 1896, it was attributed to Giorgione, who was also pupil of Bellini and documented as a colleague of Catena. Even at that time, Gardner was unsure about its authorship, although the painting’s strong quality and stirring piety led her to buy it. Bernard Berenson was frankly surprised that Gardner wanted such a strongly religious work. According to Morris Carter, the first director of the museum, the painting was Mrs. Gardner’s favorite, and she often placed a vase of violets in front of it, a tradition maintained by the museum.

My comments:

I really like this painting because even though it’s obviously religious with a purely religious purpose, it is emotionally stirring in a way that extends beyond religious piety. It has a very interesting and unique cropping of the cross and Christ; I’ve never seen any painting with a close-up on Christ’s face as he carries the cross. The fact that it also shows Christ crying, instead of merely in intense pain, kind of makes viewers stand still, and the pain that Christ experiences is paradoxically amplified even more with this depiction of the crucifixion than the typical painting that shows the whole figure of Christ and the cross, with a Christ that is very frail and bony. To me this image of the Crucifixion is the most powerful depiction I’ve ever seen for its uniqueness and the fact that Christ’s face is extremely close to the viewer. Looking at it really makes it feel as if it is just you and Christ alone in the world, sharing this very private moment right before he is about to go up to die in a way that will take hours and truly unfathomable pain. The intimacy and aloneness with Christ is further emphasized by the black background and the fact that Christ appears to be in motion. It looks as if He is about to walk out of the frame, but he slightly slows his step just to be able to look at you, and share your gaze for one significant moment, before he leaves and bears all of your sins as well as those of the whole world on his own. What a powerful image. Bravo, whoever made this painting. It is such an amazing treasure, and I would say it’s the best painting in the Gardner museum.

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