The close association between Cecco and his master, Caravaggio, likely began in the early 1600s, and the two were recorded as living together by 1605. The nickname Cecco was short for Francesco while the moniker del Caravaggio further suggests a more intimate connection to the elder artist. Indeed, Cecco served as Caravaggio’s companion, likely studio assistant, and model from a young age, possibly appearing, for example as the figure of Cupid in Caravaggio’s Amor vincit omnia (1601-1602).1 From this relationship arose a firsthand knowledge of Caravaggio’s technique, naturalistic tendencies, and dramatic lighting that would have served as the foundation for paintings such as the present canvas.
In this scene, the audience is presented with a sharply focused image of two solid figures set against a muted dark background. The armored tormentor on the left emerges from the edge of the picture plane, his thick hand tightly gripping and pulling downwards on his victim’s crown of thorns. Christ’s lithe and luminous body rises from the lower edge of the canvas—his ribs, collar bone, shoulders and arms all meticulously defined through a dramatic interplay of light and dark. His pained yet compassionate expression is cast partly in shadow, as the blood drips from his crown down his deeply furrowed brow and a few translucent tears fall from his watery eyes. While the visual interplay between this victim and his aggressor is of Cecco’s own device, it is not a far cry from the interactions depicted in some of Caravaggio’s latest canvases of 1610 including the Martyrdom of Saint Ursula2 and the Denial of Saint Peter.3
A number of visual and technical analogies within the present work seem to further secure an attribution to Cecco as well as an early execution date. In coloring and lighting, in the rendering of facial features and expressions, as well as in the inclusion of the armored soldier as tormentor, comparisons can be drawn between the present work and Cecco’s Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian of circa 1611-1613 in the Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw (fig. 1) as well as his Procession to Calvary of circa 1610-1611 in the Slovenska Narodna Galeria, Bratislava (fig. 2) Though it is uncertain whether the present work has been cut down from a larger composition, the brightly illuminated figure in the lower right of the Warsaw painting serves as another early example in which Cecco experimented with putting figures at the very edges of his compositions, and cut off from chest up, so as to bring a further degree of immediacy to the scene. While a number of other comparisons can be made, including the various figures in Cecco's Christ Driving the Merchants out of the Temple in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin,4 perhaps the most interesting connection arises when considering how the athletic anatomy and pulsating musculature of Christ in the present work foreshadows that found in Cecco's most accomplished work, the Resurrection of circa 1619-1620 in the Art Institute of Chicago.5
Like Manfredi, Cecco served as a key link between Caravaggio and artists in generations to follow, most notably the young Valentin, whose early works were influenced by Cecco's sculptural, sharply outlined, and dynamic figures, often characterized by broad faces topped with a thick head of hair. With this in mind, it is interesting to note the similarities between the present work and one of Valentin's earliest works, his Crowning with Thorns of circa 1613-1614 (fig. 3), particularly in terms pictorial handing and the poignant interaction between the aggressive tormentor and the humane and merciful Christ.
A recent Xray of the present lot has unveiled fascinating details in regards to its genesis. First, it shows the changes made to the composition, including the slight movement of the left eye of Christ and the removal of a helmet and some armor from the figure at left. It also reveals that a vertically oriented Madonna and Child lies beneath the visible surface, confirming that the canvas was reused and is indeed not a fragment, but rather a fully worked through composition. This type of devotional image, which harkens back to paintings from the Medieval Period, were known in the workshops of Rome around the turn of the seventeenth century, including the workshops of Lorenzo Carli, through which Caravaggio is known to have passed. Canvases at this time were expensive, and thus, it is not surprising that the present one was reprimed and reused.
We are grateful to Dr. Giani Papi for proposing the attribution on the basis of photographs and for his invaluable assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.
1. Oil on canvas, 156 by 113 cm., Berlin Staatliches Museum, inv. no. 369. See R. Vodret, Caravaggio: The Complete Works, Milan 2010, pp. 134-135, cat. no. 35, reproduced.
2. Ibid., pp. 208-211, cat. no. 64, reproduced.
3. Ibid., pp. 204-205, cat. no. 62, reproduced.
4. Oil on canvas, 128 by 173 cm. See G. Papi, Cecco del Caravaggio, Soncino 2001, pp. 115-117, reproduced plates VI-VIII.
5. Oil on canvas, 339.1 by 199.5 cm., Art Institute of Chicago, inv. no. 1934.390. Ibid., pp. 132-134, reproduced plates XIX-XXI.
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