Christ appears as Salvator Mundi, or ‘Saviour of the World’, with a crystal orb in his left hand and his right hand raised in blessing, its shadow falling across his breast. The orb, surmounted by a golden cross, symbolises Christ’s rule on earth. His direct gaze and frontal pose engage the worshipper on a personal level. The painted marble frame makes it appear as though Christ occupies a real space and that we could reach into the picture and touch him. It also adds to the sense that the orb is projecting towards us.
The inscription means ‘Andrea Previtali painted this in 1519’. The painting was probably made for a private patron in Bergamo shortly after Previtali’s return from Venice. This type of painting was popular in Venice, perhaps because large numbers of similar pictures were imported to the city from the Netherlands. There is another, earlier work by Previtali of Christ Blessing in the National Gallery’s collection.
Previtali shows Christ as Salvator Mundi, or ‘Saviour of the World’, with a crystal orb in his left hand and his right hand raised in blessing. The orb, surmounted by a golden cross, symbolises Christ’s rule on earth. His frontal pose and direct gaze are intended to appeal directly to the worshipper on a personal level. The painting was probably made for a private patron in Bergamo a few years after Previtali’s return from Venice in or after 1512.
The image of Christ is surrounded by a painted marble frame, which makes it appear as though he is occupying a real space, and that we could reach into the picture and touch him. It also adds to the sense that the orb is projecting towards us. This feature was more common in Italian art around 1470 than the time this painting was made. The marble ledge is inscribed in capital letters: ANDREAS. PRIVITALUS. P.M.D. XVIIII (‘Andrea Previtali painted this in 1519’). The device of the ledge was used frequently by artists influenced by Bellini and Cima – Previtali was a pupil of Bellini and often included his teacher’s name when signing his own works. His compositions also tend to refer back to Bellini’s.
This type of image is a development of 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. Here Christ’s image is presented as though it were a contemporary portrait. Such pictures were popular in north-east Italy in the second half of the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century and were usually made for domestic settings. However, bust-length images of the Salvator Mundi sometimes also appeared in altarpieces: there is a triptych altarpiece by Antoniazzo with the Salvator Mundi as its central panel (now in the Prado, Madrid). The popularity of this type of painting in Venice may have been because large numbers of similar pictures were imported to the city from the Netherlands. Venetians would have been very familiar with this image, as the silver lira coin first minted between 1474 and 1476 was stamped with the standing image of Christ holding an orb while raising his hand in blessing.
Christ’s raised hand casts a strong shadow on his robe, which adds to the picture’s sense of realism. Previtali became particularly interested in the depiction of shadows and transparent materials around 1514. Paintings of this subject by other artists, such as Cima’s (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), also make striking use of both reflections on a transparent crystal and of shadows cast by raised hands.
There is another, earlier work of Christ Blessing by Previtali in the National Gallery, of about 1512–15. Previtali probably painted it in Bergamo shortly after his return from Venice. The two paintings are of the same general type but the orb is not included in the earlier, more decorative, image.
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