Together with Savoldo and Moretto, Gerolamo Romani was one of the leading figures in the great period of Cinquecento painting in Brescia: the Lombard city was the centre of an important school of painting which gave its own interpretation to the artistic stimuli from the Venetian tradition and from the art north of the Alps. Of the three great masters in Brescia, Romanino was certainly the most original. He probably trained in the Venetian school, and worked throughout his life on a wide range of linguistic and expressive levels, at times achieving the most extraordinary results in terms of inventiveness and dramatic power. He was active in the leading centres of Lombardy, working on some very important projects including that of the Duomo in Cremona and of the castle of Buonconsiglio in Trento. The classical composure and restraint which was a hallmark in his altar paintings gradually gave way, in his devotional works for private patrons, to an exasperated form of drama which was enhanced by a schematic and rapid use of colour.
This Christ Bearing the Cross, recently purchased by the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, was almost certainly made for a private principal. The painting shows Christ ascending to Calvary: he is bent down under the weight of the cross and is being dragged up by a soldier. The crown of thorns and the rope held by the brutal hand of the hireling invite the spectator to reflect on the suffering of Christ, whose painful gaze is fixed in bitter meditation. The subject of Christ bearing the Cross, which was also taken up by Romanino in another painting in Brescia, was particularly popular in Veneto and Lombardy. The inclusion of the executioner with his plumed hat and bushy moustache, however, suggests that the painter had referred to Northern models, and to Flemish works in particular. The Northern tradition was indeed a constant point of reference for Romanino, and he looked to it as a source of anticlassical, dramatic and grotesque motifs.