Gesù che porta la croce (c.1565)

Tiziano (c.1488-1576)

Gesù che porta la croce (Carrying of the Cross)
Oil on canvas, 67 x 77 cm
Museo del PradoMadrid

Renaissance painting abounds with representations of Christ bearing the cross on the road to Calvary, either as an isolated figure, or with an executioner assailing him, or accompanied by soldiers, curious bystanders and followers, among whom the depiction of Simon of Cyrene is relatively common. According to three of the evangelists (Matthew 27:32-33, Mark 15:21-22, and Luke 23:26-27), Simon carried the cross when Christ became exhausted. Exceptional, however, both in the context of Titian‘s Venice and the rest of Europe, are compositions featuring only Jesus and the Cyrenian. The lack of such works prior to Titian‘s original painting from around 1560 (P00439) -the earliest surviving example of such a composition- suggests that the subject was an invenzione of his own, though probably suggested by Philip II of Spain (1527-98), for it was he who commissioned that first version for his private chapel in the monastery at El Escorial. The inherent prestige of a commission from the most powerful monarch in Europe must have encouraged Titian to produce others; thus, around 1565, Titian again represented the episode, in the version we see here. A copy of this painting, by Titian‘s own hand, also survives and is today housed in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. The assignment of the later date to the painting is supported by Titian‘s layering of short brushstrokes thick with diverse colours, which was characteristic of his last period. Who commissioned this second version? It appears most likely it was also the person on whom the figure of the Cyrenian is based. Carlo Ridolfi’s 1646 text Le maraviglie dell’arte: Ovvero le vite degli illustri pittori veneti e dello stato (The marvels of art: that is, the lives of the illustrious painters from Venice and from the state), asserted that the image of Simon is a portrait of Francesco Zuccato, an important Venetian mosaicist and a member of a family with close ties to Titian. Zuccato’s father, Sebastiano Zuccati, had been Titian‘s first teacher when he moved to Venice at the age of nine. The Cyrenian’s individualised features and the bejewelled ring, prominent on his right thumb, support the idea that this is a portrait of a specific individual, rather than a generic figure (the Cyrenian is more usually portrayed as a peasant). By having himself painted as Simon, Zuccato would have been able to visualise his commitment to Christ and his desire to suffer like Him and with Him. Ridolfi’s assertion of Zuccato as the individual on which the Cyrenian is based was made on the evidence of the painting now in the Hermitage, but since Simon’s features are identical in both versions, we can assume the Prado‘s Cyrenian is also an image of Zuccato. Furthermore, the Prado‘s canvas must have been painted for Zuccato himself, for the copy in the Hermitage is from the Barbarigo collection, which had acquired it from Titian‘s heirs. It had been among several works left in the painter’s studio on his death in 1576, including versions of other paintings Titian had already delivered, and which he kept in order to make further copies. This must have been the case with the Hermitage canvas. The painting possesses a strong emotional charge. In contrast to the 1560 version executed for Philip II, showing Christ’s fall and Calvary in the distance, Titian has here reduced the narrative elements to a minimum, accentuating the scene’s dramatic qualities. His decision to place the figures in the very close foreground (something that is exceptional within Titian‘s oeuvre) bringing the faces of the two men close together on either side of the diagonal created by the cross, intensifies the relationship between them. Titian also prominently depicts the elements that denote Christ’s suffering: the rope around His neck, the crown of thorns, and the drops of blood on His face. The most moving element, however, is Christ’s tearful gaze, directed squarely at the viewer as a plea to join Him. Though this aspect of the composition is unusual in Titian, there were Venetian precedents in the works of Bartolomeo Montagna, Altobello Melone, and, most significantly, Lorenzo Lotto, whose Christ carrying the Cross 1526 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) presents the cross on a diagonal and Christ in the close foreground, His eyes flooded with tears. The painting was acquired in Italy between 1637 and 1642 by the Marquis of Leganés, who gave it to Isidoro Aliaga, the Archbishop of Valencia. In 1666 it is documented as belonging to the Spanish Royal Collections and entered the Museo del Prado (Text drawn from Falomir, M.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery – Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 118).


Tiziano (c.1488-1576)
Gesù che porta la croce
Hermitage MuseumSaint Petersburg