In today’s blog I complete my look at the 16th century Italian painter, Giovanni Battista Moroni, and look at some of his religious works.
Moroni had studied under Alessandro Bonvicino (Il Moretto) and in the 1540’s he eventually rose to become the main studio assistant at his Master’s Brescia workshop. Moroni went on to ply his trade in Bergamo, his home town of Albino and the town of Trent during which time, the town hosted the Catholic ecumenical Council of Trent. The first Council being held between 1546 and 1548 and Pope Julius III instigated the Second Council of Trent, which began in May1551 and ended two years later. During these days Moroni received many commissions to paint altarpieces for the local churches.
One such religious work was The Last Supper which Moroni completed in 1569. The setting for the work is a covered logia, which is part of an architectural setting through which we glance out at a distant blue-skied landscape. The first thing that strikes you about this rendition of the famous religious scene is the man in black who stands behind those partaking in the meal. We can tell by his dress that he is not one of the Apostles. He stands behind St John and is acting as a waiter to the diners. He is the dominant character in the painting but why was he included? We know the painting was commissioned in December 1565 by the Confraternita del Santissimo Sacramento, a regional Brotherhood of the Blessed Sacrament in the small Bergamo commune of Romano di Lombardia and was not completed until 1569. There has been much speculation about the identity of the man in black with some people, such as the 19th century Italian art historian, Milesi Locatelli, who in his 1869 three-volume biography Illustri Bergamaschi. Studi critic-biografici, and more recently Maria Calì in her 1980 book, “Verita” e “religione” nella pittura di Giovan Battista Moroni, both stated that it was the artist himself but why the confraternity would want Moroni to include himself is hard to rationalize. Simone Facchinetti who co-wrote the book which accompanies the Royal Academy’s Moroni exhibition believes that the man in black is Lattanzio da Lallio, the parish priest of the Romano di Lombardia church at the time of the painting and his position of power over the confraternity and the fact that he was arranging the painting commission with Moroni, may have allowed/asked the artist to have himself depicted in the painting.
My next couple of religious works by Moroni are very interesting. The depiction in each case is believed to have come from what was taught by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises, often termed the Ignatian Spirituality. The Spiritual Exercises are a compilation of meditation, prayer, and contemplative practice developed by St. Ignatius Loyola to help people deepen their relationship with God. They were a set of Christian meditations, prayers and mental exercises. When one prayed, St Ignatius believed that one should meditate on a biblical passage so as to bring the person praying closer to God. He gave precise instructions on the matter of composition or envisioning the place. The religious composition is the fruit of mental prayer. It is a sort of vision arising in the mind of the one who is praying. It is seeing with the eyes of the imagination a physical location in which the thing the worshipper wishes to contemplate is to be found.
The first painting is entitled A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian which was completed by Giovanni Battista Moroni around 1575. The painting is housed in the Bergamo church, Chiesa di Sant’ Alessandro della Croce. In this work a man in the foreground has turned towards us and points towards a painted scene of the Crucifixion which is being witnessed by St John the Baptist on the left and St Sebastian on the right. The latter can be seen holding the arrows shot at him during the first attempt on his life. Sebastian is often depicted in paintings tied to a tree or a pillar and shot with arrows but according to legend he did not die and was rescued by Irene of Rome, later Saint Irene. Later, around AD 288, he was clubbed to death for openly criticising the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
The second work depicts a man praying and at the same time concentrating his mind on a story from the Bible, which in this case is the baptism of Christ by St John. What we see before us is what, through deep meditation, the praying man has conjured up in his mind during prayer. The painting is entitled Gentleman in Contemplation of the Baptism of Christ which Moroni completed around 1555. The young man, with his hands clasped in prayer, stands upright before the biblical scene he is imagining, separated from it by some architectural ruins. In the background we have a Lombardy landscape and in the middle ground we see the two figures by a stream which almost certainly alludes to the River Jordan where Christ was baptised by John. The painting is now part of the Gerolamo and Roberta Etro collection. Gerolamo, an avid art collector, was the founder in 1968 of Etro the Italian luxury fashion house.
My final offering of a religious work by Moroni is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine and was completed around 1550. It is a beautiful and delicate work of art and is housed at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford. In the painting we see a depiction of St Catherine, an early Christian martyr of royal birth, seated next to the Virgin Mary, who cradles the Christ Child. Catherine is receiving a wedding-ring from Him, which symbolises her spiritual closeness to God. In her left hand she holds a palm frond which was adopted into Christian iconography to represent the victory of martyrs, a victory for the faithful against those who want to claim their soul. St Catherine, who died in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century AD, when she was in her twenties. She was martyred at the hands of the pagan emperor Maxentius.
The setting for the painting is inside a room, which has a large window, through which can be seen a town. It is thought that it is the town of Bergamo, as to the left, one sees the town’s Torre Civica, which was built in the twelfth century. The small oil on canvas painting, which measures 86cms x 68cms, is thought to have been designed for private devotion. Furthermore the original recipient of the work is thought to have been a young girl, who would then identify herself with the teenage martyr, Catherine.
Giovanni Moroni was part way through a commission to paint The Last Judgement in the church at Gorlago, a commune of Bergamo, close to his home town of Albino. He never completed the commission as he died in February 1579. Although his exact birth date is not known it is reckoned he was in his mid-fifties when he died.