This painting is an early copy of one of the most celebrated of Correggio’s small religious paintings. For a long time it was regarded as Correggio’s genuine version, even after the arrival in London of the original from the Spanish Royal Collection (now in Apsley House, London). The Apsley House painting was damaged by fire and the National Gallery’s copy records the landscape’s original appearance.
Following the Last Supper, Christ kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane and appeals to God to be spared from his imminent suffering and death. In this startling composition, the angel and Christ are placed daringly close to the left edge to allow for an expansive nocturnal landscape with dramatic lighting effects. On the right, the apostles sleep on the ground, unaware of Christ’s turmoil. The light that radiates from Christ himself is brighter than the dawn, recalling his words: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8: 12).
This painting, intended for private devotion at home, is an early copy of one of the most celebrated of Correggio’s small religious paintings. It is a very striking composition with Christ and the angel placed daringly close to the left edge to allow for what originally must have been a beautifully rendered nocturnal landscape with dramatic contrasts of light and dark.
For a long time this painting was regarded as Correggio’s genuine version, even after the arrival in London of the original from the Spanish Royal Collection (now in Apsley House, London). The Apsley House painting was damaged by fire and the right-hand side was repainted to show an earlier idea for the composition by Correggio. The National Gallery’s copy records the landscape’s original appearance.
The Gospels record that after the Last Supper, Christ went to walk in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He was accompanied by the apostles Peter, John and James, and asked them to stay awake and pray with him; they assured him they would. He stood a little way off from them and felt an overwhelming anguish, knowing that his betrayal and Passion were near. He appealed to God to spare him, asking to ‘let this cup pass me by’. A little while later he acknowledged God’s will and said, ‘If this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, your will be done!’ (Matthew 26: 42). He said this prayer three times and on each occasion when he looked at the apostles he found them asleep. He said, ‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’. An angel appeared from heaven to give Christ strength and comfort.
Correggio’s composition shows Christ kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane praying to God to be spared. The open rhetorical gesture of his hands shows that he is speaking. An angel swoops down to comfort him but Christ looks away and gazes upward to heaven. On the right, the apostles sleep on the ground, unaware of Christ’s turmoil. The light that radiates from Christ himself and illuminates the angel is brighter than the dawn that is breaking beyond the distant mountains, recalling Christ’s words: ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8: 12).
Very unusually for one of Correggio’s small devotional paintings, a preliminary drawing for The Agony in the Garden survives in the British Museum, London. It is on the other side of a study for Venus with Mercury and Cupid (‘The School of Love’), which is also in the National Gallery’s collection. The two pictures were probably painted at a similar time, between 1522 and 1524, although this copy dates from between 1640 and 1750.
The subject was painted by previous Italian artists, but Correggio’s treatment of it as an emotionally charged nocturnal scene relates to Northern art, in which he was particularly interested. Cranach, Altdorfer and Holbein all painted the subject, and it is possible that Correggio had seen the subject in prints by Dürer. Dürer’s images of the Agony have a tremendous and violent power that is unlike earlier images, which show Christ meekly accepting his fate. This emotional intensity appealed to Correggio.
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