Lot 5. Giovanni Bellini (Venice 1425/30-1516), Christ carrying the Cross, oil on panel, marouflaged, 47.7 x 36.5 cm.; 18¾ x 14⅜ in. Estimate: 150,000 - 200,000 GBP. Lot sold 795,000GBP. © Sotheby's.
Exhibited: Venice, Doge's Palace, Giorgione e i Giorgioneschi, 11 June – 23 October 1955, no. 40 bis.
Note: Eliminating narrative elements and any indication of setting, fully concentrating on the suffering Christ, who stares out at the viewer melancholically, the present work is a striking example of a new type of private devotional painting which emerged in Italy in the late fifteenth century. Closing in on Christ to such an extent that the cross itself is almost lost, and depicting in great detail His red eyes and already colourless lips, this intimate and intensely personal devotional image would provide aid to prayer and meditation, and is a type Giovanni Bellini perfected following a matrix developed in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century and which rapidly developed in Lombardy and the Veneto.
First published by Bode in 1927 as a masterpiece by Giovanni Bellini of national importance, the attribution of this panel has been a point of scholarly debate for nearly a century, but is now recognised as one of three autograph versions by Bellini dating from the end of the first decade of the fifteenth century, most likely after an earlier lost prototype by the master. As many as fifty-five versions have been recorded – the three which are largely accepted as autograph being the panel in the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio (49.5 x 38.7 cm.);1 that in the Pinacoteca dell’Accademia dei Concordi, Rovigo (48.4 x 27 cm.);2 and now the present work. The design of the prototype is generally credited to Bellini, due in part to Marcantonio Michiel (1484–1552) recording such a work in the collection of Taddeo Contarini, Venice, in 1525 ('el quadro del Christo con la croce in spalle, insino alle spalle, fu de mano de Zuan Bellino'). Pallucchini (1959) and Bottari (1963) identify this as the Toledo panel, although this cannot be proven due to the numerous versions of the composition that exist and the lack of recorded provenance before 1939, when it was first published by G.M. Richter.3 The many contemporary versions not only demonstrate the success of this composition in the ambit of Bellini but also point to the scale and success of his workshop.
A painting by Giovanni Bellini of 'Christ carrying the Cross', probably identifiable as the present work, is recorded in the Duomo at Murano by 1674, when it is described by Luigi Scaramuccia in his book 'Le finezze de' pennelli italiani...'. Guido Giubbini in his 1965 edition of Scaramuccia's account identifies it as probably the painting later in the Church of the Salesiane.
We are grateful to Professor Peter Humfrey for endorsing the attribution following first-hand inspection. The painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Giovanni Bellini by Peter Humfrey, Mauro Lucco and Giovanni C. F. Villa.