Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio (1623)

Guercino (1591-1666)

Presentazione di Gesù al Tempio (Presentation of Jesus in the Temple)
Oil on copper, 72.5 x 65 cm
National Gallery, London

Mary and Joseph brought the infant Christ, forty days after his birth, to be presented in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Jewish custom, all first-born male children were to be taken to the Temple to be presented to God in a ceremony that involved the sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, which can be seen here at the foot of the altar.

The elderly seated figure on the right is the high priest Simeon. The Gospel of Luke says the Holy Ghost had told Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. With the aged priest about to receive the infant Christ in his arms, Guercino captures the moments preceding this story’s climax. In the seconds that follow, Simeon recognises Christ and realises that his destiny has been fulfilled. Embracing death, he utters, ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation’ (Luke 2: 29.)

Guercino painted this work in 1623, shortly after returning to his native Cento from a two-year stay in Rome. During his time there he had seen the work of Domenichino, whose influence is apparent in the clearly defined planes and recession of space in this picture, as well as in the evenly dispersed light and vibrant use of colour. Architecture features more prominently here than in Guercino’s pre-Roman works, which are often crowded with figures tightly cropped by the picture frame (such as, for example, in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas). Guercino has used the architecture to carefully construct the space, and has paid attention to the decorative elements, including the stone steps and sculpted bas-relief on the altar.

Despite some evolution, aspects of Guercino’s early style remain. The naturalistic, aged figure of Saint Joseph in the centre resembles Elijah from Guercino’s 1620 painting Elijah fed by Ravens. With his aged, weathered face, Joseph presents a contrast to the young Virgin and infant Christ. His slightly dishevelled appearance and simple clothing are set against the immaculately dressed high priest. Simeon’s embroidered cope is remarkably similar to that of Saint Gregory in Guercino’s Saint Gregory the Great with Saints Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier.

This painting is unusually large for a work on copper. Because copper was an expensive material, these pictures were typically smaller; like, for example, Guercino’s The Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels. The artist makes the most of the copper’s smooth and luminous surface, painting with great delicacy (note the ducks in the basket of the candlestick on the altar) but also attaining monumentality in the figures. Guercino used an opaque orange ground for this work which is visible in parts of the image, particularly the architecture in the upper right section of the painting.

The picture was painted for Bartolomeo Fabri, one of Guercino’s early patrons who lived in the artist’s native Cento. (Fabri had also commissioned The Incredulity of Saint Thomas from Guercino two years earlier). The painting was later returned to the artist in settlement of a debt. According to his biographer, Carlo Cesare Malvasia, Guercino kept the painting by his bed and refused offers from numerous distinguished collectors looking to buy it, including Cardinal Antonio Barberini and Cardinal Prince Leopoldo de’ Medici. Guercino eventually sold it in 1660 to Raphael Dufresne, who offered a substantial sum and presented the artist with an inscribed copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Trattato della pittura (Treatise on Painting). (NG)

See also:

• Jerusalem (Israel)