While carrying his cross, Christ stumbles and falls. One of Christ’s executioners raises a fist to strike him and another pulls him by a rope around his waist. In the distance is Calvary, the barren hill with two crosses where Christ will be crucified. The Virgin follows her son and wipes her tear-soaked cheek. Saint Veronica holds out her veil to Christ, on which the image of his face will become miraculously imprinted.
This painting may have been an altarpiece for a chapel dedicated to Saint Veronica. Her name is related to the Latin phrase vera ikon, which means ‘true image’. Veronica’s veil, the Sudarium, became a relic venerated as a true picture of Christ.
The composition was inspired by an engraving after Raphael (Prado, Madrid) and by a woodcut from the Small Passion by the German artist Dürer. A dense arrangement of figures expressing strong emotion is typical of Bassano’s mature works -– those made once he had fully developed his style and technique.
A great throng of figures accompanies Christ on his way to be crucified. Two crosses stand on Calvary, the barren hill in the distance to which the procession wends its way. The men mounted on a horse and mule may represent the priests and Pharisees overseeing the event.
Christ stumbles and falls to his knees beneath the weight of his cross. In front of him is a tree stump, which represents Christ’s sacrifice, and was frequently used by Bassano in images of Christ. One executioner raises a fist to strike him, while another pulls at a rope tied around his waist. Christ appears calm but Saint John throws up his hands in anguish. Mary, Christ’s mother, wipes her tear-soaked cheek with her blue cloak. Christ turns to Saint Veronica, who holds out her white veil; the image of his face will become miraculously imprinted on it. It is unusual to depict the Three Marys and Saint Veronica pressed so close to Christ’s executioners. Their grief and worry contrasts sharply with the executioner’s cruelty and adds to the drama.
The size and format of this painting – almost a metre and a half square – mean it was almost certainly made as an altarpiece. The subject of The Way to Calvary had been introduced relatively recently as a principal theme for altarpieces. It may have been intended for a chapel dedicated to Saint Veronica, as her encounter with Christ is its main focus. Her name is related to the Latin phrase vera icon, which means ‘true image’. Veronica’s veil, the Sudarium, became a major relic, preserved in the Basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, and venerated as a true picture of Christ. The legend of Saint Veronica is not in the Bible and in the second half of the sixteenth century, during the reform of the Church, there were doubts about her cult. It may be that this altarpiece was removed from its church setting during that period.
The painting is remarkably well preserved considering its age. Bassano’s earliest mature works – those made once he had fully developed his style and technique – often feature limited spatial depth, and tightly packed figures in active and violent poses. The composition here is radically cropped, with figures on both sides cut and very little sky above, as though Bassano has ‘zoomed in’ on the drama. The composition was inspired by an engraving after Raphael’s Christ Carrying the Cross (‘Lo Spasimo di Sicilia’) (Prado, Madrid). Bassano may also have been influenced in his figure of the Virgin by a woodcut from the Small Passion by the German artist Dürer of 1509. The Roman soldier’s white scarf, which flutters up curling against the sky, is similar to the restless flourishes of fabric which are typical of Dürer and German Renaissance art.
This painting is not listed in Bassano’s Libro Secondo, which is surprising as it was the book in which he seems to have recorded all his important commissions. The altarpiece may have been made for his own family chapel or as a special favour. The richness and variety of colour, the complexity of the composition and intensity of expression suggest that it was a painting to which Bassano devoted great attention.
The painting was once in the collection of Charles II and was listed among the possessions of his Queen, Catherine of Braganza (1638–1705). When she returned to Portugal, she gave it as a bribe to the Lord Chamberlain so he would allow her other paintings to leave England.
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