Christ blesses the viewer with his right hand. Antonello has altered the original position of the fingers and hand, foreshortening them – that is, compressing their real length – so that they appear to be projecting out of the picture. If you look closely, you can see the outlines of their initial position, now visible because the paint has thinned over time.
This type of image of Christ is based upon Netherlandish pictures that became popular as focuses for prayer in the fifteenth century. The head-on view is based upon the imprint of Christ’s face which, according to legend, he left on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica as he approached the site of the Crucifixion. Antonello uses layers of oil paint glazes to show a range of textures, painting Christ’s image as vividly as if it were a portrait.
Long curly hair, a blue mantle and a gesture of blessing are the only indications that this is an image of Christ. This type of close-up ‘portrait’ of Christ, which originated in Flanders in the fifteenth century, was a popular image used to aid prayer.
Such pictures derived from the legend of Saint Veronica who offered her handkerchief to Christ to wipe his face as he walked to the site of the Crucifixion. According to the legend, the cloth was miraculously marked with a permanent impression of Christ’s features and so became the only true image of Christ. A relic of the handkerchief was said to be preserved in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Paintings depicting the so-called true portrait developed into a variety of images of Christ’s face including that of Christ making this blessing gesture. All have a head-on viewpoint.
The half-length image of Christ Blessing probably derives from a painting by Rogier van der Weyden – the Braque Triptych in the Louvre, Paris – which also features the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. The image of Christ in that painting was copied by numerous Netherlandish artists and these kinds of pictures soon became popular in Italy. Most versions include a halo and an inscription of Christ’s name. Antonello has removed these elements so that Christ’s divinity is evident only through his face, which resembles the other images, and blessing gesture.
Over time the layers of paint have thinned so that the drawing beneath is visible in places – the outer edge of Christ’s right nostril, for example, and we can also see short parallel lines on the bridge of the nose that indicate an area of shadow. If you look just above Christ’s raised hand, you’ll see the outline of its position in the initial design. Antonello changed it to make Christ’s presence more immediate, altering the alignment of his fingers so that they look as though they are stacked on top of each other, and moving them towards the viewer so that his hand appears to jut out over the parapet into our space. The original design follows versions of the image by the Netherlandish painter Hans Memling, now in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena.
Antonello used walnut oil to bind his pigments, enabling him to show the sheen of Christ’s curls, for example, as well as the subtle variations of colour that create the illusion of marble in the parapet. This image shows Antonello’s interest in using paint to describe different textures such as the stark pink flesh of Christ’s lower eyelid and the crisp folds of the paper (called a cartellino) attached to the parapet.
The cartellino bears the artist’s signature and the date, written in Latin. The inscription, translated, reads: ‘In the year 1465 of the eighth indiction Antonello da Messina painted me.’ The inscription has caused confusion not least because the skilful technique used here suggests the picture could have been painted in the 1470s at around the same time as his Portrait of a Man.
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