Count August Ciezskowski (1814-1894), Wierzenica near Poznan, Poland;
Dr. Paul Wallraf, Cologne (as Attributed to Bernardo Parentino);
Anonymous sale, New York, Sotheby's, 30 January 1998, lot 25 (as by Giorgio Chiulinovich, called Schiavone);
There purchased by the present collector.
This striking painting, almost surreal in its conception and presentation, depicts the Imago Pietatis (literally the "Image of Piety"), a representation of Christ that has venerable roots in Western art. Christ is shown after the crucifixion, upright in his sepulcher, while two angels drape (or un-drape) him with a rich blue damask backed with a cherry-red lining. His hands are crossed, his eyes closed and his head tilted to the left. This portrayal of Christ is an undeniable reminder of the suffering of the Passion, although the ambiguous nature of the image—is it Christ resurrected or dead?— would have been a particularly compelling concept for pious meditative veneration. In these particulars, the present painting adheres to the tradition of the Imago iconography, which after originating in Byzantine art, was transplanted to Western Europe, taking root in various parts of Italy, and in Venice in particular. There, painters such as Paolo Veneziano treated the subject, a convention that continued into the 16th century with Giovanni Bellini and his followers1. The extraordinary aspect of this panel, however, is how the depiction, which is often simply the quiet figure of the Christ himself, has been elaborately embellished with other symbols of the Passion, all with a rolling landscape as background. It is a singular image, and has relatively few parallels in North Italian painting of the 15th Century.2
Active in Verona, one of the principal cities of the Venetian Terraferma, Francesco Benaglio is first securely documented in 1456. His earliest datable work is a triptych in the church of San Bernardino, Verona (1462-3), which derives its composition from Mantegna's San Zeno Altarpiece of a few years earlier. Benaglio, however, appears to have been more reliant on the models of Francesco Squarcione, as the former attribution of the present work to another of the latter's pupils, Giorgio Schiavone, attests (see provenance). This influence appears to be particularly strong in the 1450s, but the artist turned to other sources for inspiration in the following decades, and his paintings of the 1470s show an awareness of Piero della Francesco, even if transmitted through secondary sources.3 This Imago Pietatis was first attributed to Benaglio by Miklós Boskovits, who considers it is "[a] characteristic and hitherto unrecognized product of the artist's Squarcionesque phase" (see Literature). As such, it would appear to date to circa 1460.4
The iconography of the present painting has intrigued scholars since it first came to their attention when it was sold in these rooms in 1998. Despite having been in the collection of Paul Wallraf, a member of the distinguished Cologne banking family and a renowned collector of drawings, the picture appears to have escaped the notice of scholars, and its appearance at auction afforded the first known public examination of the panel in its history. In addition to the central figure described above, the painting presents a catalogue of the events of the final week of Christ's life, allowing the viewer to reflect upon the entire history of his ordeal, and the resultant salvation it afforded them. At the bottom left of the composition is the column upon which Jesus was bound at Pilate's command in order to be scourged. Moving to the right one sees the Holy Lance, which pierced his side, as well as the dice the soldiers gambled with during the Crucifixion. At right in the foreground is the cock, which crowed at Peter's denial, and at the extreme edge the ladder used to take his body from the cross. Just next to these elements is the tomb in which Christ is placed; this is decorated "all'antica" with a small tondo depicting the Crucifixion flanked by the figures of Adam and Eve (who holds up the forbidden fruit to the cross). Suspended from the two arms of the cross proper is a red cord from which hangs a varied group of badges or symbols of the Passion. These include from left to right: a knife (which Peter used to cut off the ear of his attacker at Gethsemane); a pot and pair of hands (referring to Pilate's washing of his hands); a shield (a symbol as yet unclear); a purse and head (the money Judas took to betray Christ and his subsequent suicide by hanging); an implement of torture (unclear); a lantern with two scourges (references to the taking and whipping of Christ); a pitcher (possibly referring to the eucharist); a shirt (Christ's which the soldiers played for); a hammer (for the nails of the Crucifixion); a strip of white cloth (unclear, but perhaps related to the Crucifixion, or a loincloth); a pair of pincers (with which the nails were removed); a basin and a hand (unclear, or a repetition). Even more eccentric is the range of heads across the arms of the cross; these are clearly meant to represent the catalysts of Christ's death. The exotic and pseudo-oriental headdresses of three of the figures leaves little doubt that they represent the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, as well as another Jewish figure, perhaps a Pharisee. The blond man with the solar crown, which would have been familiar to Renaissance Italians from ancient coins, must depict Pilate himself, the sole Roman amongst Christ's antagonists. The small animal, which appears to be a monkey, sitting in the tree at the left of the composition is also curious, and is given too prominent a location to be considered a mere decorative flourish by the artist. The building in the cave at right is also intriguing, and the two small figures next to it, which appear to be Dominican monks, suggest that the artist may have painted it for a patron attached to that order, although this, as so much with this picture, must remain somewhat tantalizingly speculative.
There can be little doubt that the present panel was intended for private contemplation, and as discussed, one of serious and intense devotion. An early owner of the picture appears to have scratched his own reflections into the panel itself. Several words are inscribed by a later hand along the line of the tomb; the only one fully legible is at lower left which reads 'pasionis [sic]', confirming in a word the obvious subject of the painting.
1. See, for example, the central top panel of the Pala Feriale, painted by Paolo Veneziano as a cover for the famous Pala d'Oro on the main altar of San Marco, Venice (Paolo Veneziano e la pittura tra Oriente e Occidente, Milan 2002, exhibition catalogue, reproduced p. 27). Bellini and other artists were to update and modernize the image.
2. This iconography is more common in Tuscany, with perhaps the best example being the Pieta with the Symbols of the Passion of 1404 in the Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, inv. 1890 no. 467.
3. See R. Longhi, "Calepino Veneziano. V. Una Madonna della cerchia di Piero della Francesca per il Veneto", 1947, in Opere complete di Roberto Longhi, vol. X. Ricerche sulla pittura veneta, Florence 1978, pp. 70-73.
4. For a more complete biography of the artist, see M. Lucco, La pittura in Italia: il Quattrocento, Milan 1986, vol. II. p. 581, and M. Boskovits, op. cit. p. 95.
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