Giovanni Battista Moroni – his religious works

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.

The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)
The Last Supper by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1566-9)

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.

A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)
A Man in Contemplation Before the Crucifixion with St John the Baptist and St. Sebastian by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1575)

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.

A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)
A Gentleman in Adoration before the Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1555)

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.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)
The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine by Giovanni Battista Moroni (c.1545-50)

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.

Torre civica, Bergamo
Torre civica, Bergamo

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.

Portrait of a Young Man by Moretto da Brescia

Portrait of a Young Man by Moretto da Brescia (c. 1545)

Today I am moving away from the interpretive type of allegorical paintings,  which I featured yesterday  and which is a genre I really like.  Today, although staying with an Italian artist, I am returning to portraiture.  Today’s artist is Moretto da Brescia who featured in My Daily Art Display on December 17th.

Moretto da Brescia was born Alessandro Bonvicino around 1498 at Rovato, a town in the province of Brescia in Lombardy. He studied first under Fioravante Ferramola of Brescia and later with Titian in Venice.    He was the leading Brescia painter of the day and concentrated his works on religious subjects mainly producing altarpieces and other religious works.  Today’s painting in My Daily Art Display is simply entitled Portrait of a Young Man which Moretto completed around 1450 and which now hangs in the National Gallery London.

The subject of today’s painting is thought to be Count Fortunato Martinengo Cesaresco who was a member of a branch of Brescia’s most important noble family.  He was also a leading literary figure in Brescia and was founder of the Accademia dei Dubbiosi in 1551 and friend of the Venetian humanist and Italian theorist of paintings, Lodovicio Dolce.  The count married in 1542 and this portrait could well have been done around the time of his betrothal and been a gift for his bride.   

The painting has a background almost completely dominated by a heavy maroon and gold brocade curtain with its pomegranate and carnation design.  The count is depicted lavishly if somewhat flamboyantly dressed in this portrait, .  There is no doubting his wealth and nobility.   On the table to the left of him are some rare ancient coins, one of which is in an open ivory case, which gives the impression that he may have been a collector of such items.  Lying next to them is also a bronze oil lamp in the shape of a sandalled foot.  Hanging over the edge of the table we can see a pair of grey leather gloves.  He is half sitting, half slumped as he rests his right elbow on a couple of pink tasselled taffeta cushions whilst his right hand supports his face.  Look at his face.  What does his facial expression convey to you?  To my mind we are not looking at a happy contented man.  Wealth has brought him neither satisfaction nor happiness.   It is a look of a man who is melancholic and his eyes seem to suggest that he does not know how to lift his depression.   Does he know what is causing this depression or is he one of those unfortunate people who feel depressed but are not sure what has brought about such depression?   Maybe we get an incline of his problem.  On his black velvet cap is a cap badge with the Greek words which translate as:

“Alas I deserve too much”

So how do we translate those words in relation to the Count?    Is it referring to his dilemma as a collector that he knows no matter how wealthy he is, he will never be able to possess all the prized items he needs for his collection to be complete.  All collectors will empathise with this sentiment.  Some art historians would rather put a more romantic slant on his melancholic expression and the inscription on his cap badge.   They believe that as this painting was a gift to his wife he is indicating pictorially to her that no matter how much treasure he owns, nothing will take away the pain of separation from his beloved. 

This is a sumptuous painting and a magnificent portrait.  However, I will leave you to decide what is causing his anguish.

Saint Justina with a Donor by Moretto da Brescia

Saint Justina with a Donor by Moretto da Brescia (c.1530)

Alessandro Bonvicino more commonly known as Moretto da Brescia was born around 1498 at Rovato, a town in the province of Brescia in Lombardy. He studied first under Fioravante Ferramola of Brescia and later with Titian in Venice.    He was the leading Brescia painter of the day and concentrated his works on religious subjects mainly producing altarpieces and other religious works.  The human figure in his paintings is somewhat slender and expressions are intently religious.  The backgrounds of his paintings tended to be of a radiant quality.  He was a very religious person and use to prepare himself before embarking on a work of sacred art by prayer and fasting. 

Today’s offering in My Daily Art Display is Moretto’s St Justina with a Donor which he painted around 1530 and was one of the major works of the Northern Italian High Renaissance.  This picture is one which I saw when I visited the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. 

In this painting the union between a religious subject, in this case Saint Justina, and the figure of a patron has been brought to such a self-contained yet intimate whole.  Although in essence it is a devotional picture there emanates a feeling of a pastoral love scene.  Saint Justina is revered as the patron saint of Padua and is shown holding the martyr’s palm,  standing besides the unicorn.  Moretto merges the legendary figure of a sorcerer, who was converted by Justina, into the donor of the painting.  He gazes up at the saint with an enraptured reverence that seems to have affected even the unicorn.  The influence of Raphael is clearly evident in the statuesque, suspended form of the beautiful saint and Moretto was often alluded to as the Raphael of Brescia.

 Have you a favourite painting which you would like to see on My Daily Art Display?  

If so, let me know and tell me why it is a favourite of yours and I will include it in a future offering.