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This is one of three preparatory oil sketches for one of Polidoro’s most important works: the altarpiece for the oratory of SS. Annunziata in Messina, Sicily (now in the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). It shows Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross as he carries it to Calvary where he will be crucified.
Raphael’s Way to Calvary of about 1516 (Prado, Madrid), was the starting point for the design, but Polidoro quickly developed his own dramatic and highly idiosyncratic response to the subject. The painting is crowded, claustrophobic and fraught with emotion.
Polidoro has skilfully manipulated the strength of colour to increase the intensity and drama of the story. The National Gallery’s oil sketch is the only version to include the figure of the Virgin Mary collapsing in grief, which is taken up so dramatically in the finished picture.
Polidoro da Caravaggio was a self-taught painter in Raphael’s workshop. After Raphael’s death in 1520, Polidoro specialised in painting grisaille fresco decorations in imitation of antique sculptural reliefs on the exteriors of buildings throughout Rome. When Rome was sacked by German troops in 1527, Polidoro fled south. He went first to Naples, then settled a year later in Messina in Sicily, where he spent the remainder of his career.
This is one of three oil sketches for Polidoro’s most important and ambitious work, the altarpiece for the oratory of the Catalan confraternity attached to the church of SS. Annunziata in Messina, Sicily (now Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). It shows Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross as he carries it to Calvary where he will be crucified.
The finished altarpiece was carried aloft in a street procession, forming part of a Passion play, and was revered as a kind of miraculous relic. It was commissioned by Pietro Ansalone, consul of the Catalan confraternity. His family owned a chapel in S. Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo, on the high altar of which was Raphael’s Way to Calvary of about 1516 (Prado, Madrid), which was the starting point for Polidoro’s design. Perhaps seeking to surpass his master’s example, Polidoro quickly abandoned the classicism of Raphael’s painting and developed his own dramatic and highly idiosyncratic response to the subject. The painting is crowded, claustrophobic and fraught with intense emotion.
Polidoro made numerous preparatory drawings for his painted works, but when it came to designing the Catalani altarpiece he chose to make exploratory sketches in oil on walnut panel, which seems to have been recycled from furniture or a door. The National Gallery painting is the third in a series of three surviving oil sketches – the other two are in the Vatican Museums, Rome, and the Capodimonte Museum, Naples. They are the earliest known examples of the oil sketch or bozzetto; during Polidoro’s time, artists usually prepared for complex painted compositions by making drawings on paper;
The Vatican sketch, the first in the sequence, is little more than a copy of Raphael’s work. In the Naples sketch Christ no longer carries the Cross, but is shown protecting himself from his tormentors. In the National Gallery’s sketch, Polidoro combines elements from both the previous studies. He returns to his initial idea of Christ crushed beneath the giant Cross, but retains the atmospheric landscape and the violence and emotional intensity of the second sketch. This is the only version to include the figure of the Virgin Mary collapsing in grief, which is taken up so dramatically in the finished picture. Polidoro continued to alter his design so the finished work differs yet again from the exploratory works.
In the oil sketches, Polidoro worked with a deliberately muted range of colours, which may reflect his experience of painting grisaille fresco decorations in Rome, and possibly also an awareness of the work of Leonardo. Polidoro has skilfully manipulated the intensity of colour to increase the emotional intensity and drama of the story.
Following the Catalani commission Polidoro began to paint finished works in the same very loose, monochromatic manner as the oil sketches for the Way to Calvary. It seems that he had discovered a dynamic and expressive technique that appealed to him.
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