LORENZO Monaco | The Man of Sorrows [Vir dolorum]

Florence? 1370 /1375 – Florence 1402/1442

The Man of Sorrows [Vir dolorum] c.1405
tempera and gold on wood panel
34.2 (h) x 24.0 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891

Florence in Lorenzo Monaco’s time was a politically independent city-state with extensive territories throughout Tuscany, widespread banking and commercial networks, and a thriving textile industry. Recovering from the ravages of the plague in 1348, Florence became a centre for learning and trade, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Sculpture and architecture were highly valued; Florentine art, as exemplified by Giotto,[1] was characterised by its qualities of space, structure and volume. To accommodate an increasingly urban population many new churches were built and existing churches expanded. The monasteries were central, and the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence, to which Lorenzo belonged, was renowned for the production of high-quality manuscripts.[2]

The image of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, shown with the physical evidence of his Crucifixion, was increasingly important during the Middle Ages when his suffering became the focus of contemplation, especially for private devotion. Here the Christ figure, who is both living and dead, is portrayed from the waist up emerging from the tomb, with black bands indicating the Cross behind him. The panel, which has probably been cut down on all four sides, may have been the door of a tabernacle—perhaps the reason for its reduction was the need to remove a keyhole.[3] Several other holes are visible still. Alternatively, it may have been part of a small, portable altarpiece or one panel of a polyptych.[4]

Lorenzo’s sombre, almost monochrome palette is in keeping with the subject matter. Colour is used only for Christ’s scarlet wounds and the pink marble tomb. The brushwork around his face and hair is especially beautiful and delicate, particularly the wispy beard. The finely-modelled, painted form of the body contrasts starkly with the punched halo and low relief arch on the gold background. Indeed the contrast between Christ’s face and the ‘metallic’ halo is such that it is reminiscent of earlier Byzantine art. The juxtaposition between the perspective of the tomb and the emphatically flat black Cross is also remarkable.

As a monk, Lorenzo left few of the secular documents such as tax records which allow us to date his works with certainty. Several connections exist between this and the artist’s other paintings, including his Pièta with symbols of the Passion 1404,[5] in which Christ has the same pigeon chest and slightly undersized head. Giovanni Valagussa draws further links to his Coronation of the Virgin panels of the San Benedetto altarpiece 1407–1409.[6] Lorenzo’s artistic abilities were regarded as a divine gift for glorifying God and Camaldolese spirituality, thus the panel, whether a section of a religious object or part of a larger painting, would have served as a constant reminder to its owner of the inevitability of his mortal state. It summarises a period on the cusp of the late Middle Ages and the first flowerings of a new, modern era.

Lucina Ward

[1] Giotto di Bondone (1266/1267–1337).

[2] The Camaldolese Order, a branch of the Benedictines, was formed by
Saint Romuald at Camaldoni in 1012.

[3] www.accademiacarrara.bergamo.it, Catalogo dei dipinti esposti, viewed 30 August 2011.

[4] Scott Nethersole points out that many churches were rearranged in response to reforms enacted because of the Council of Trent (1545–1563); see Nethersole, Devotion by design: Italian altarpieces before 1500, London: National Gallery, 2011, p. 98.

[5] Galleria dell Accademia, Florence; see also the Pietà fresco in the Museo dell’Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence.

[6] Monastery of San Benedetto fuori Porta Pinti, now National Gallery, London; other panels Florence, Rome, London, Poznan and American collections. See Giovanni Valagussa, cat. 14, in Botticelli, Bellini, Guardi … Chefs-d’œuvres de l’Accademia Carrara de Bergame, Paris: Editions Hazan, 2010, p. 58.