Christie’s is to auction a picture of Christ Carrying the Cross by Girolamo Romanino. The painting is a masterpiece of Girolamo Romanino’s fully mature style and among the most potent and moving depictions of the theme in 16th century Italian art. The painting will highlight Christie’s Old Master Paintings sale on June 6 in New York, and is estimated at $2,500,000-3,500,000.
Girolamo Romanino (Brescia 1484/87-1560), Christ Carrying the Cross Estimate: $2,500,000-3,500,000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2012.
A leading painter of the north Italian school, Girolamo di Romano, who during his lifetime came to be called Romanino, was born between 1484 and 1487 in Brescia, then under Venetian rule. Active as a painter of frescoes, altarpieces, portraits and private devotional pictures, Romanino worked in numerous cities across northern Italy, including Padua, Cremona, Trento and Brescia, which remained his chief residence over the course of his career.
The theme of Christ Carrying the Cross, in which Jesus is presented half-length and at close range against a neutral dark background while tormented by his executioners, was enormously popular in north Italian painting in the first half of the sixteenth century. Such representations were intended to serve a devotional function, as a stimulus to prayer and pious contemplation. Most often relatively small in scale, they were typically commissioned by a private patron for display in a study, bedroom or small chapel in the home, as is likely to have been the case with the present picture.
Christ Carrying the Cross is based on the dramatically charged episode from the Passion in which Jesus is forced to carry the cross on which he will be crucified from Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem. Romanino shows Christ half-length, dressed in a splendid copper-colored satin robe and wearing a crown of intricately twisted thorns. He is bowed under the weight of an enormous wooden cross, which he grasps with both hands while turning his head to the right, gazing out past the viewer as if deep in thought. At upper left, the head of a brutish torturer emerges from the shadows, his mouth open and teeth bared as if taunting Christ as his clenched fist pulls on the knotted rope around the Savior’s neck.
The juxtaposition of the crude vehemence of the torturer’s expression and the quiet restraint of Christ gives visual expression to the age-old struggle between good and evil, here also symbolized by the tormentor’s placement to the left of Christ, that is, on the sinister side. Christ’s robe seems to have slipped to expose his bare shoulder, alluding to the humiliation he will endure when he is stripped before being crucified, a poignant detail which heightens the pathos of the scene. The torturer’s bushy moustache and red velvet beret with a full white plume, suggest those worn by the German mercenary soldiers who sowed terror across north Italy in the 16th century, perhaps known to Romanino first-hand, but which he also would have seen in German prints by Daniel Hopfer and others, then widely disseminated. Notwithstanding the subject, the violence is subdued. The picture conveys a sense of peace, due not only to Christ’s tranquil expression, but also to its balanced and harmonious design.