Christ raises his hand in blessing as Salvator Mundi, or ‘Saviour of the World’. Such pictures were particularly popular in north-east Italy in the second half of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century and were usually made for the home. The popularity of this type of painting in Venice may have been due to the import of large numbers of similar paintings from the Netherlands.
Here Christ’s image is presented as though it were a portrait. His frontal pose and direct gaze are intended to appeal directly to the worshipper on a personal level.
This picture was probably painted in Bergamo shortly after Previtali’s return from Venice in 1511 or 1512. There is another slightly later version of Christ as Salvator Mundi by Previtali in the National Gallery’s collection, which is inscribed 1519.
Previtali depicts Christ raising his hand in blessing as the Salvator Mundi or ‘Saviour of the World’. Such pictures were particularly popular in north-east Italy in the second half of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century. The earliest example seems to be Antonello da Messina’s Christ Blessing, which probably dates from the 1470s.
These pictures were usually made for domestic settings, but this was not always the case. Alvise Vivarini’s Christ Blessing of 1494 (now in S. Giovanni in Bragora, Venice), which is very similar in character to Previtali’s picture and nearly identical in size, was originally incorporated into the altar shrine of S. Giovanni Elemosinario in Venice.
The popularity of this type of painting in Venice may have been due to the import of large numbers of similar paintings from the Netherlands. The pose and expression of Christ also relate to Byzantine icons – images from the Eastern Orthodox Church – which were known in Venice due to the city’s position and trade links with the East.
This kind of image ultimately derives from the ‘Vera Ikon’, the true image of Christ that was supposedly imprinted on Saint Veronica’s cloth when she used it to wipe Christ’s face on his way to be crucified. A letter, supposedly written by Publius Lentulus, Roman governor of Judea at the time of Christ, describes him as having ‘hair of the hue of an unripe hazelnut and smooth almost down to his ears, but from the ears in curling locks somewhat darker and shining, waving over his shoulders; having a parting in the middle of the head...a brow smooth and very calm...a face without wrinkle...a full beard of the colour of his hair, not long, but a little forked at the chin...the eyes grey...sometimes he hath wept, but never laughed.’ This letter is now believed to be a forgery written in the thirteenth or fourteenth century but the description had a definite influence on images of Christ in Italy around 1500, including Previtali’s picture.
Previtali presents Christ’s image as though it were a contemporary portrait. His frontal pose and direct gaze are intended to appeal directly to the worshipper on a personal level. This picture was probably painted in Bergamo shortly after Previtali’s return from Venice in 1511 or 1512. Previtali was a pupil of the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini and frequently copied or adapted his compositions – he even signed himself as Bellini’s pupil on his own paintings. Bellini is known to have painted two bust-length portraits of the Blessing Christ that are very close in character and size to Vivarini’s painting for S. Giovanni Elemosinario (one in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the other last recorded at Galerie Hans, Hamburg). It may be that Previtali was influenced by these. There is another slightly later version of Christ as Salvator Mundi by Previtali in our collection, in which Christ also has a similar appearance.
The green brocade hanging in the background now has a blotchy appearance because the pigment has darkened. The green lines in the embroidery on Christ’s collar have also darkened. The painting is otherwise very well preserved.
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