Sandro Botticelli’s painting “Man of Sorrows”, which captivates eyes, is due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s auction house on January 27 – with a guarantee of US$ 40 million. 223 million) – but it still needs to be studied extensively as it has been on private property since the 19th century.
Technical analysis carried out by the auction house in preparation for the sale has already revealed an unexpected discovery: an intriguing image of a Virgin Mary with baby Jesus, hidden under layers of paint.
Chris Apostle, senior vice president and director of paintings in the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s in New York, who has had the opportunity to reflect on the image for a long time, believes it to be an abandoned composition of a “Madonna of tenderness” (a type of representation derived from Greek culture), in which the Virgin Mary intimately cradles Christ as a baby, with his face next to hers, face to face.
Facial features, particularly the nose, eyes and laughing mouth, which he identifies as belonging to the baby Jesus, are very visible in the infrared image if turned upside down.
This head occupies a space below the chest of the Man of Sorrows painting, while what appears to be an eye and an eyebrow, belonging to a female head, can be seen in the area near Christ’s right hand, according to Sotheby’s.
There is also evidence of some white underpainting, possibly cadmium, at the bottom of the figure. Other visible parts of the abandoned composition include what appears to be folds of a robe, with decorative bands around the shoulder and part of a sleeve, and the folds of the child’s arm are also discernible.
Some lines in this sub-drawing are thicker than others, suggesting they may have been drawn from a standard drawing and then smeared in liquid pigment. But the baby Jesus’ head is “unique”: there is no replica in any Botticelli-signed drawing or in studio work for what we find here, suggested Apostle.
So, is it unusual to find a design like this? Apostle says he’s come across this sort of thing before. “Canvases were a valuable commodity in the Renaissance,” he explained, so in the case of a discontinued artwork – in this case, the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, something Botticelli and his busy studio regularly produced – “nobody would want to play the screen off”.
And so, it seems, Botticelli took the canvas, turned it the other way, and decided to use it for an extraordinary composition that reflects the near-millennial religious angst of Italy at that time. The work is dated to around 1500, when predictions of the apocalypse and hopes for personal salvation reached a high level of intensity.
The poplar canvas Botticelli used was the standard painting support in Renaissance Florence.
Sotheby’s technical analysis reveals a crack in the middle and an old knot in the wood and shows that the canvas was “reconfigured sometime in the 20th century,” according to Apostle. It is supported by a modern plaque, with the original back and front on either side of it (“a kind of marufage,” Apostle explained).
The paint layers are in “very good condition,” he continues, though a little worn around the edges, and there are additions to the top and bottom of the image.
The infrared images also show that Botticelli made some adjustments to the composition, according to Sotheby’s analysis.
For example, the tip of a finger next to the open wound on Christ’s side is now covered by his robe, and there is a change in the position of the wound and in the profile of the thumb, with the resultant effect that the wound is somewhat “despised,” according to Apostle. There is also evidence that Botticelli altered the length of Christ’s hair, his chin, and the location of some of the thorns on the crown, as well as his eyebrows.
In terms of Botticelli’s typical pictorial technique, Apostle said that “he changed it here”, mixing tempera and oil. “It’s very difficult, without taking samples, to say what the binding medium is,” he said. “But the technique seems pretty consistent with what I would expect to see. We have XRF technology so that we can observe, for example, the element cadmium, and we have a lead map, which shows where the fills and losses are. Pigments include chromium, titanium and so on – all the pigments you would expect to see.”
As in Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel”, sold last year by Sotheby’s in New York for US$92 million. million), white lead paint is used copiously throughout the composition, with some of it mixed with the preparatory plaster.
The small cross at the top of the composition was rendered by marking lines on the surface of the paint and then shifted (such incisions are also visible in the “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel”).
“It would have been too far to the right,” said Apostle, although the cross and Christ are still positioned asymmetrically. This asymmetry contrasts with a comparatively contemporary image, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (another eccentric Old Master image, which sold for $450 million at Christie’s New York in 2017), where Christ is presented. rigidly from the front, as in the famous relic of Christ, the “Veil of Veronica”.
“What I find touching is that Christ is a little off center,” said Apostle. “Botticelli tilted his head slightly, which is more human.”
Aged 55 or older at the time the work was painted, Botticelli would be in the last decade of his life, Apostle pointed out. “I feel like there’s something in this image that Botticelli is projecting, an understanding that we’re all going to die – it has a deep emotional charge,” he said. “If he had represented Christ complete and rigid, he would have been more like an icon; a little more impenetrable.”
This content was originally created in English.
Reference: CNN Brasil