Holiness and Lust in Early Modern Art

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By this post I am putting together some quite free associations: I am considering Mannerist as well as Baroque artworks, some of them being sculptures, some paintings. The difference of time, medium and context does not allow, in the space of a brief article, a decent analysis nor I expect to do so; rather, I want to gather some visual similarities and recurrent elements in a group of objects that stirred my personal curiosity. Therefore, I hope I will be excused for the informal ease of some following statements.

One day, walking through the rooms of the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), I noticed a small group of shining bronze sculptures, set on a base of green marble; although the dimensions of the object are not notable, nor the position in the room favours it, I was immediately attracted by the refined use of materials: the golden metal swiftly combines with the polished surface of marble, which visually unifies the three separate figures of Christ and two executioners. Indeed, it is a Flagellation executed by Alessandro Algardi around 1650. Reading the date I was quite disappointed, as at first I thought it was a Mannerist work of art.

The reasons for this gross error are two: first of all, the lavish use of materials and the small dimensions of the object reminded me of some refined creations by Mannerist sculptors such as Benvenuto Cellini (the most obvious example is his great Saltcellar, a gold, gems and ivory piece produced for Francis I of France). Moreover, the figure of Christ reminded me of some depictions of Agnolo Bronzino, one of the most notable (and personally favourite) figures of the Sixteenth Century in Florence. Let us consider, for instance, his Descent of Christ into Limbo: the body of the Saviour shines in the gloomy environment of Hell, his defined muscles and physical strength highlighting the triumph over death and decay.The position of the body is not natural, the torso twisting heavily against the direction of the legs, which do not stand firmly on the ground: in fact, one might ask how He is standing. On the one hand we see the vigorous materiality of the body, on the other we are led to forget the actual weight of matter. Returning now to Algardi, we can notice the same interest in rendering the shape of Jesus’s muscles: the powerful depiction of his body does not match realistically the scene of flagellation, he does not look exhausted and the neck bending toward the left is the only element suggesting the suffering of His Passion. Finally, the legs are not stiff, or rigid, but bow smoothly and the whole weight is based on the front part of the feet; indeed, the position is not naturalistic.

In both works, I think, there is a notable sexualisation of the figure of Christ: we do not witness the cruelty of a scene of martyrdom, nor the glory of Salvation, rather we are attracted by the perfect rendering of the bodies, by the richness of materials, by the ivory pale complexion of the figures. In both artworks materiality is complexly questioned, as the idealised beauty of the figures and their perfect body shapes are not meant to emphasise a concept, but to appeal to the senses in a highly sensual way. When we look at a painting such as Ecce Homo by Guido Reni, we are put before a much more dramatic scene of suffering: Christ is bent by pain, his skin already showing the morbid colour of death, and his lips slightly open as if to produce some helpless gasp.

The two executioners are similarly interesting: the sculptor did not linger on the rendering of muscles, their bodies appear indeed smoother, elongated. The distribution of weight is as unnatural as in the case of Jesus in the centre, but yet they appear lighter, stylised. Notably, they can be reduced to a few basic lines: for instance, the figure on the left is set so that the turned back and the leg create a continuous line; the same can be said of the one on the right, where the right leg is put forward so as to harmonise with the torso bending back before the next lash. This arrangement of the human body is not new to Algardi, and can be observed also in one of his main works, the marble altarpiece of San Paolo Maggiore in Bologna, showing the Beheading of St Paul: ere the executioner, quite similar to those in the small group, strikingly turns his torso, preparing for the violent act; the tension rendered by marble in this movement is indeed cast upon the spectator who prefigures the tragedy without being able to intervene. Both this work and the bronze group appeal heavily to our inner reaction: they do not look for intellectual involvement, rather they touch our basic senses: fear, tension but also visual pleasure. Despite the grim subject, the composition and the rendering of each character are quite lavish and aesthetically enjoyable.

Indeed, Baroque art is strongly based on the direct involvement of the spectator: he is supposed to take part in the experience first of all by his body. For this reason, the religious theme is heavily re-elaborated and the narrative dimension leaves space for ecstatic contemplation; in this regard, the sexualisation of figures is not as striking as works such as the Descent of Bronzino, where nude becomes an emblem of the artist’s virtuosity. However, soul and body heavily blend, and the spiritual dimension may occasionally become questionable.


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Ecce Homo


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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