The Blessing Christ
( Venice, 1442/53 1503/05 )
Oil on wood panel : 19 x 12 3/8 in (48.2 x 31.4 cm)
Private collection, New York
New York, Piero Corsini Gallery, 1990.
Important Old Master Paintings. Within the Image, exhibition catalogue, Piero Corsini Gallery, New York, 1990, pp. 20-23.
This Blessing Christ is completely unknown to the scholarly literature, and represents one of the most important additions to the oeuvre of Alvise Vivarini. The last member of the most illustrious workshop in Renaissance Venice, after that of the Bellini, Alvise is a painter who can comfortably stand in the company of Giovanni Bellini himself, and even of Antonello da Messina. Indeed it seems entirely appropriate to bring up Antonello’s name with respect to this figure of Christ, as he resembles him in both style and concept of perspective.
Parallels between Alvise and Antonello can also be found in portraits, as evinced by the strong facial features of our Christ. In particular, it is worth comparing Alvise’s Portrait of a Man in the John G. Johnson Collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (panel, 27 x 20 cm) (1), with that by Antonello in the Borghese Gallery in Rome (2), and even more closely with the one in the Museo Civico in Turin (3). The faces share the same oblique view, chosen so as to plumb the depths of the sitters’ souls, an approach used by Alvise in his Blessing Christ, which also resembles the portrait of a young man in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo (Inv. 173) (4). Another comparison can be made with the head of Saint George in the Belluno Altarpiece (formerly in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, destroyed in 1945) (5), a late work, perhaps painted in 1490, which is reversed in pose with respect to our Blessing Christ, but with an identical conception of psychology and space.
Our painting should also be compared for its iconography with the Blessing Christ in the church of San Giovanni in Bragora, Venice, though the image differs from ours in its frontal, powerfully iconic and perspectival qualities, reflected in the foreshortened pose of the hand and the neat division of light and shade. A document discovered by Ludwig proves that Alvise Vivarini was paid on 9 April 1494 for an “imagine della testa del nostro Signor” (a bust of Christ) placed on the monument of San Giovanni Elemosinario in that church. It stands in eloquent dialogue with similar works by Bellini, and especially by Antonello da Messina (indeed the Christ in San Giovanni in Bragora is almost a copy of Antonello’s painting in the National Gallery, London) (6).
An immediate precedent for our painting in style, expression and perspective is the Saint Clare in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, a unanimously recognized masterpiece by Alvise, datable to between 1485 and 1489. (7) We should also consider the Blessing Christ in the Brera Gallery, Milan, signed and dated 1498 (panel, 52 x 37 cm), of which our image is essentially a variant. (8) There, various passages have been retouched or re-glazed, and it should be pointed out that our panel is in much better condition. It differs in iconography, with the left hand holding a small cross, whereas our picture has a glass orb with cruciform bands, a symbol of God’s dominion over the universe ; and the fingers of the right hand make a slightly different gesture. The drapery is less pleated in the Brera picture, and Christ’s hair and beard are not defined in the same way. The position of the shoulders is different, as are the majestic poses of the two figures : more broadly extended in the Brera panel, more slender and vibrant in ours. The angle of the chin and direction of the gaze are also distinct from one another.
Thus, if we look carefully, our painting has a more clear-cut feeling, greater gravitas and a more hieratic expression, as well as superior quality with respect to the Brera picture, although the latter may be compromised by its condition. In the fleshy lips of our Christ one can almost feel the sense of irony that defines some of Antonello da Messina’s faces. We can certainly believe that this Blessing Christ was designed precisely when reactions to Antonello’s art in Venice were at their most receptive.
Finally, this painting should be compared with the signed picture by Giovanni Bellini now in the Accademia di San Fernando in Madrid (panel, 43 x 31 cm) (9), which was in turn replicated by Rocco Marconi in the painting in the sacristy of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice.
1 - Rodolfo Pallucchini, I Vivarini (Antonio, Bartolomeo, Alvise), Venice, 1962, pp. 137-138, no. 261.
2 - Mauro Lucco, Antonello da Messina, Milano, 2011, pp. 168-171, figs. 134-136.
3 - Lucco, 2011, pp. 172-175, figs. 137-140.
4 - John Steer, Alvise Vivarini, his art and influence, Cambridge, 1982, pp. 129-130, no. 4.
5 - Pallucchini, 1962, p. 137, no. 260.
6 - Lucco, 2011, p. 104, fig. 165.
7 - Vittorio Moschini, I Vivarini, Milan, 1946, pl. XXIV ;
8 - Pallucchini, 1962, p. 138, no. 265, pl. XII ; Steer, 1982, pp. 142-143, no. 18 ; P. Humfrey, in Pinacoteca di Brera,
9 - Scuola Veneta, Milan, 1990, pp. 279-280, no. 161.