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Corrado Giaquinto, The Brazen Serpent

Key facts
Full title The Brazen Serpent
Artist Corrado Giaquinto
Artist dates 1703 - 1766
Series Modelli for Frescoes in S. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome
Date made 1743-4
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 136.5 × 95 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1987
Inventory number NG6515
Location Room 40
Collection Main Collection
The Brazen Serpent
Corrado Giaquinto

According to the Old Testament Book of Numbers the Israelites, tired of walking through the desert in search of the Promised Land, criticised both Moses (their leader) and God. God punished them by sending a plague of venomous snakes to bite them, causing the death of many. When the Israelites repented, God instructed Moses to erect a bronze serpent which instantly cured those who looked at it.

Moses, identifiable by the two rays of light emanating from his head, gestures towards the serpent coiled around a pole. Some men and women stare upwards seeking salvation while others are sprawled on the ground, suffering the effects of the serpents’ poison.

This is a modello, or highly finished painted sketch, for a fresco in the apse of the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. As with the related Moses Striking the Rock, also in the National Gallery, the dimensions are slightly larger than is usual for a painted sketch. This is probably so that the design could be approved before its enlargement in fresco.

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Modelli for Frescoes in S. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome


These two paintings are modelli, or presentation pieces, for frescoes in the basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. As part of the restoration of the church, which began in 1741, Giaquinto painted canvases for the nave’s ceiling and frescoes for the lower walls of the apse. In preparation for the commission, Giaquinto first painted bozzetti, or sketches, and then modelli for approval by the Pope and the procurator of the Cistercian Order, Raimondo Besozzi. The National Gallery has two of these modelli, featuring scenes of Moses’ miracles on his way to the Promised Land. The modelli enable us to reimagine the original colour scheme of the frescoes, which have been damaged by humidity and unsuccessful nineteenth-century restorations.

The relic of the True Cross brought back from the Holy Land by Helen, mother of the first Christian Roman Emperor (Constantine), provided the central subject of the church’s decorative scheme. The basilica had been built on the site of Helen’s villa, where the relics were originally housed.