Immediately identifiable by his long hair, beard and gesture of blessing, this kind of small close-up ‘portrait’ of Christ was hugely popular as an object of private devotion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such portraits were produced in a number of painters' workshops both north and south of the Alps.
This way of showing Christ was immediately derived from Netherlandish painting, but ultimately harks back to miraculous images of the Holy Face, such as the veil of Saint Veronica and the Mandylion of Edessa. In the Renaissance these were thought not to have been made by human hands and so were seen as the ultimate truthful likenesses of God incarnate.
Diana has painted Christ’s left hand resting on the parapet’s edge and his right arm reaching over it, making us feel that Christ shares our space – and making him more immediately accessible to the Renaissance worshipper.
Immediately identifiable by his long hair, beard and gesture of blessing, this kind of small close-up ‘portrait’ of Christ was hugely popular as an object of private devotion in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Such portraits were produced in a number of workshops both north and south of the Alps.
But how could a Renaissance artist paint a portrait of someone who died in the first century? The idea of a portrait of Christ shown straight on and close up, often known as the Holy Face, was originally devised by Jan van Eyck, although his painting does not survive. His way of showing Christ – with widely spaced eyes and smoothly arched eyebrows running down into a long nose – was intended to resemble miraculous images that were thought not to have been made by human hands: the veil of Saint Veronica, which had been used to wipe Christ’s face on the way to the Crucifixion, and the Mandylion of Edessa, the portrait Christ made by pressing his face to a piece of cloth. Christ sent this to the King of Edessa, curing him of a fatal illness. The image of the Holy Face became hugely popular and was reproduced many times – you can see a copy of it on the parchment in the background of Portrait of a Young Man.
Christ had of course been painted before van Eyck. Italian panel paintings of the thirteenth and fourteenth century by Cimabue and Giotto and earlier mosiacs show a calm, stately, bearded Christ, hand raised in blessing. This type was imported into Netherlandish art by Rogier van der Weyden after a trip to Italy. His Braque Triptych of about 1452 (now in the Louvre, Paris) shows a similar Christ, one hand raised, the other holding a globe: the so-called ‘Saviour of the World’. He perhaps also painted a small picture showing a half-length Christ blessing, with the other hand resting on the frame or parapet instead of holding a globe. A number of versions of this survive from the fifteenth-century Netherlands, including one by Hans Memling.
Netherlandish painting was hugely popular in Italy, and the idea was picked up by Italian painters, including Antonello da Messina and Andrea Previtali. Benedetto Diana’s depiction follows Antonello’s Christ Blessing closely. Christ has neither crown, halo nor orb to help us identify him. He is dressed in red and blue, and is shown behind a small parapet. Like Antonello, Diana has signed his name on a cartellino attached to the parapet. Christ’s right arm is rotated so that the edge is towards us, and the fingers of his left hand are stacked on top of each other so that they seem to jut outwards. His hands and arm cast shadows both across his body and on the parapet, emphasising his physical reality. His left hand rests on the parapet’s edge and his right arm reaches over it, making us feel as if Christ shares our space – and making him more immediately accessible to the Renaissance worshipper.
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