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Christ sits upon a tree trunk, sheltered within a building that looks like a small chapel with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. He wears the crown of thorns, which was placed upon his head before the Crucifixion. Around his neck is a looped rope, a reminder of the Flagellation (when he was tied up and whipped).
It is unclear whether the picture is supposed to represent a particular moment or a mystical vision of Christ’s sufferings. It presents Christ as a focus for prayer and meditation. His presence in the chapel takes the place of an altar with a religious painting above. Outside, we see an Italian hillside where stags and deer graze.
Cicognara came from a town near Milan but his work is not well-known as he signed very few pictures. He was a painter and manuscript illuminator, and the precision of the details in the landscape and the architecture fits well with an artist used to working on a small scale.
Christ sits upon a tree trunk, dressed in a sky-blue robe that contrasts with his ginger hair and beard. He wears a crown of thorns, which was placed on his head after he was sentenced to death to mock claims that he was King of the Jews. Around his neck is a rope, threaded through a loop, its torn end dangling on the ground. There are no wounds caused by the nails of the Crucifixion on his hands or feet.
It is unclear whether this picture is intended to represent a particular moment in Christ’s torture and death (known as the Passion). If so, it seems to be just before the Crucifixion and after the Flagellation (when he was tied up and whipped).
The setting may be intended to bring to mind a chapel within a church, where Christ’s body takes the place of an altar with a sculpture or painting above it. In the fifteenth century these chapels often had barrel-vaulted ceilings similar to the one we see here. Originally found in the architecture of classical Greece and Rome, this feature was revived by Renaissance architects. The artist has described the depth of this imaginary chapel by mirroring the ceiling coffers – indicated by rectangular indentations, inlaid here with dark stone – with the grid pattern of the paved floor. He scored the directional lines of the paving with a ruler to ensure their straightness; he must have painted Christ’s feet over the top, as the lines are now visible crossing them where the paint has worn away. The ‘chapel’ is set within a landscape, a lush Italian hillside, built up here and there with fortifications, houses, and churches with bell-towers. A stag roams to the right and two deer graze on the left.
The meaning of the image is unclear – it is highly unusual. It might be a vision of Christ’s sufferings, but we do not know of any written evidence of such a mystical event. The panel’s reverse is decorated with an abstract pattern intended to resemble marble, suggesting that it was a portable panel, perhaps carried on travels to aid prayers.
There is no clear consensus about who painted the picture but Cicognara is the latest suggestion. Cicognara’s work is relatively unknown as he signed very few pictures. He worked on manuscript illuminations as well as paintings. The miniature scale of some of the details and the precision of the drawing – in the sculptural reliefs, for example – fit well with an artist who was accustomed to working on a small surface like the page of a book. Cicognara was from Cremona, a town near Milan, in Lombardy. The exaggerated folds of Christ’s robe match his style, which was inspired by artists from nearby Ferrara. Similarly jagged draperies can be found in the work of the Ferrarese painter Cosimo Tura, who was painting at around the same time.
This painting once belonged to Austen Henry Layard. Layard was an archaeologist, diplomat and MP and a trustee of the National Gallery.
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