Sandro BOTTICELLI | Christ the Redeemer [Gèsu Redentore]

Italy (Florence) 1444 /1445 – 1510

Christ the Redeemer [Gèsu Redentore] c.1495-1505
tempera and gold on wood panel
47.6 (h) x 32.3 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Sandro Botticelli’s late religious works, such as his ‘Mystic Nativity’ 1500[1]—the only painting on which he signed his name, and then in Greek—are often interpreted as a response to the fiery sermons of Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. On 24 March 1497 Savonarola preached in Florence on the Passion of Christ and compared the suffering of the faithful during the plague with Christ’s suffering.[2] This tearful Christ crowned with thorns could inspire devotion from the faithful in Florence in the way prescribed by Savonarola.[3]

Christ is presented with his right hand raised in blessing, a Byzantine pose. Against the black background golden rays of light form an aureole behind his head. He is richly dressed: the crimson robe decorated with myriad gold crosses, the blue cloak covered in stars, with a patterned border of stylised plants outlined in gold thread and fastened with a red jewel. Both hands are marked with the wounds of his Crucifixion; and with his left hand Christ draws attention to his pierced body. There are drops of blood where the heavy Crown of Thorns bites into his forehead. Christ stares fixedly out at the spectator with tears falling from his right eye, his sensual lips apart as in pain.

In creating a new image of great power and emotion Botticelli took inspiration from a Northern European artist, Hans Memling,[4] whose works were known in Italy—such as his Man of Sorrows c. 1480s in the Palazzo Bianco, Genoa.[5] As in other compositions from his later years, such as Lamentation over the Dead Christ 1490–1492,[6] Botticelli is indebted to Flemish examples, appropriations of conventions beyond the Alps made to convey the intensity of the Passion of Christ. The Flemish influence is particularly marked in the expressive face of this Christ the Redeemer and in the emphasis on his wounds and tears.

Giovanni Morelli bought the Redeemer in Florence shortly before 25 October 1865, on which date it is recorded in conservation with Giuseppe Molteni in Milan.[7] We have no earlier provenance for the painting. At that point the panel now in Bergamo was part of a diptych with a Mater Dolorosa, the sorrowing Mother of Christ, which was sold to Maria, Grand Duchess of Russia (present whereabouts unknown).[8]

The composition must have been popular as there exist many versions attributed to Botticelli. For one of these, a panel now in the Fogg Museum, Harvard, the same preparatory drawing or cartoon was used, even though the painting has different details in the outer periphery of the composition, notably a baldachin above Christ’s head.[9] One of the replicas is inscribed on the reverse: ‘My grief is always in my sight’,[10] a traditional lament at bereavement that conveys the impact of Botticelli’s haunting image, created at a period of intense religious feeling and millenarian belief in Florence.

Jaynie Anderson

[1] National Gallery, London.

[2] Girolamo Savonarola, Feria sexta in Passione Domini, in Roberto Ridolfi (ed.), Prediche sopra Ezechiele, vol. 2, Rome: A. Berladetti, 1955, pp. 335–44.

[3] Alessandro Cecchi, Botticelli, Milan: Federico Motta Editore, 2005, p. 332.

[4] Hans Memling (1430s–1494).

[5] Once accompanied by a Virgin of Sorrows; see Barbara G. Lane,
Hans Memling: Master painter in fifteenth century Bruges, Turnhout: Brepols/London: Harvey Miller, 2009, p. 58.

[6] Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

[7] Unpublished letter from Giuseppe Molteni to Giovanni Morelli, 25 October 1865, Zavaritt Archive, Bergamo.

[8] See Jaynie Anderson, ‘Love and devotion in daily life in Renaissance Italy’, p. 53, illus; also see Everett Fahy, in A. Di Lorenzo (ed.), Botticelli nelle collezioni lombarde, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 80–82.

[9] Francesco Rossi, La raccolta Morelli nell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo: Grafica Gutenberg, 1986, p. 96.

[10] Ronald Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, London: Paul Elek Limited, 1978, vol. 2, pp. 140–42.