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pontormo study

Composition Study

An Alternative Reading of Subject Matter in the Context of the Certosa Passion Cycle

Summary: This paper challenges the conventional assumption of a 16th century drawing's thematic source. It supports this thesis through an analysis of the fresco cycle's conceptual structure.

View the study (from AIC Museum Studies, vol.17, no.1) [210KB]


By the year 1522 Jacopco Carucci de Pontormo (1497-1557) had achieved considerable success in Florence as a painter of religious and secular scenes. In that year, when the city experienced an outbreak of plague, he took advantage of a timely commission from the Prior of the Certosa de Gallazzo to leave the city and paint a fresco cycle in the monastery's cloister.

Although direct documentation is sparse, the 16th century historian Giorgio Vasari relates that Pontormo found the atmosphere of the monastery to his liking and he lingered over the project for several years, reworking the frescos repeatedly until he was fully satisfied.(Vasari,v.2,p.1527) When he was finished, the five frescos included: Christ in Gesthamene, Christ Before Pilate, Christ on the Road to Calvary, a pieta and The Resurrection.

According to Vasari (in a tone both characteristically subjective and unusually critical), Pontormo's treatment of the subject matter was lifted nearly wholesale from Albrecht Dürer's Passion series published in 1511 and widely distributed throughout Italy at this time. Other more recent scholarship attributes additional influences more close at hand, such as the broadly popular book Vita Christi, written by a monk of the same Carthusian order as those in the Certosa, or the frescos in Chiostro dello Scalzo by Jacopo's last master, Andrea del Sarto, or almost certainly, the bronze reliefs by Donatello on the pulpit at San Lorenzo, elements of which are plainly visible in the Christ Before Pilate fresco.(Giles, 34) But this treatment of Christ Before Pilate was not the only one he considered, as evidenced by the black chalk drawing acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989.(1989.187 [image])

This small drawing, approximately ten inches square, is not much more than a sketch; an experimental exploration loosely rendered over a stylus incised guide drawing. The study mixes figures modeled with stumping that overlap other pentimenti, architectural elements and, in some cases, previous versions of themselves. But Pontormo's mastery as a draughtsman is shown by how it never loses a sense of itself. It still remains both spatially credible and psychologically intense.

In the publication The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies (vol.17, no. 1), Laura Giles, Research Curator of Italian Drawings, makes a compelling case for the sources of imagery in both the AIC study and the Certosa frescos. However there is one aspect that can be called into serious question. That aspect is the source of the scene which the study serves to illustrate.

In Ms. Giles' article she asserts that the fresco cycle derives its iconographic structure from the Carthusian text, Vita Christi. This is quite credible due to both the philosophical relationship to the monastery and the likely proximity of the book to Pontormo. On the other hand, she postulates the source of the drawing as the 15th century devotional work, Meditatione spore la pazzione del nostra signore Iesu Christo, which ultimately traces its roots to a 4th century apocryphal text, The Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as The Acts of Pilate.(Giles,34-35)

Within the Meditatione is the following passage, as paraphrased by Ms. Giles:

When Christ entered the Roman Govemor's palace, twelve Imperial standards held by ensigns lowered themselves of their own accord in homage to Christ, whereupon all those assembled there were compelled to kneel in worship. Beholding this spectacle, Pilate became afraid and left the room.
There are three aspects that arouse my suspicion of this source: First, that this text is not relevant to the Vita Christi that is asserted as the conceptual basis for the cycle of frescos. Second, that there are no standards(flags) visible in the drawing despite their central role in the story, and hence any likely composition (there is one lightly drawn pentimenti to the left of Pilate but this is, in another section of the article, described as a halberd [image], a description with which, in this discussion, I will concur). And third, those kneeling "in worship" are not facing Christ, to whom the flags would have dipped in homage, but are clearly turned towards Pilate.

In opposition to Ms. Giles' hypothesis I would like to offer my own: rather than a source in an apocryphal text, I suggest that the scene derives from The Gospel of St. John (1 9:4-9). This takes place after the scourging, in front of the throng:

Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth wearing a crown of thoms, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the Man. When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him they cried out, saying Crucify him, Crucify him, Pilate saith unto them, take ye him: for I find no fault in him. The Jews answered him, We have a Law, and by our Law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God. When Pilate therefore heard that saying he was more the afraid, and went into the Judgment Hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence Art Thou? But Jesus gave him no answer.

(italics added for emphasis)

This text not only fits the drawing, but also fits what I will show is a major conceptual aspect of the Certosa Passion cycle as a whole.

First, a comparison of this section of all four Gospels reveals that John is the only one where Christ appears before Pilate while wearing the purple robe. Since he is clearly wearing a robe in the drawing, and since elsewhere in the Gospels the point is made that his own clothing did not include a robe, it indicates the likelihood of John as a source. If He is wearing the robe then He must also be wearing the crown of thorns. A close examination of the manner in which the different heads are drawn (as well as other Pontormo heads), reveals that the complexity of the lines surrounding the head of Jesus is inconsistent with the relatively controlled corrections he makes elsewhere. When looked at in relation to the mark making on the other heads in this and other Pontormo Christ figure drawings, it becomes more credible that these complex, interweaving lines describe the crown of thorns, just where one would expect to find it.(see Cox-Rearick, no. 199) Also, the kneeling figures would make much more sense facing Pilate if they are read as Annas and Chaiaphas, the two chief priests mentioned in John, begging that Christ be crucified for violating their law.

The next justification is a bit more elusive, but when taken in the context of the preceding arguments it becomes one worth considering. This involves an aspect of the Certosa cycle program as a whole and the criteria by which images could be selected. The cycle consists of five frescos. In addition, there are three known composition studies.(Giles, 37) Listed in their order in the Passion story, and designated with an "F" for fresco and an "s" for study, they are:

  1. F The Arrest (about to happen)
  2. s Christ Before Pilate (about to enter Judgment Hall)
  3. F Christ Before Pilate (about to wash hands)
  4. F Road to Calvary (about to arrive)
  5. s Nailing Christ to the Cross (about to be crucified)
  6. s Deposition (after the crucifixion)
  7. F Pieta (after the deposition)
  8. F Resurrection (after the reanimation)

In 1-5 Christ is alive and is depicted in a scene where the important action is about to happen. It is a state of narrative tension that invites the viewer to complete the event. This is an altogether appropriate treatment for the decoration of a contemplative order. In 6-8, after He has died, the point of view shifts to the passive side of the event; the climax of the moment has passed. But beyond the passivity is a subtler shift, the cycle "reanimates" and, in a sense, comes full circle.

It is in view of this conceptual unity between the studies and the executed frescos that I make my final argument against the apocryphal source of the AIC study's subject matter. In the Meditatione version, the critical action has already taken place: Pilate has been cowed by the miracle and Christ is worshiped in his presence. In The Gospel of St. John version, the action is still building to the climactic question: "Whence art Thou?"; Who are you?

This is a compelling question. It resonates with Pilate's terror and desperation of the situation as well as reflecting out to the reader to question their own provenance. That this is a part of the program of the cycle is made clearer by Pontormo's inclusion of the viewer in the observing throng and his engagement of the viewers eye contact in both the fresco and the study. This is the same technique he employed in his most famous painting, Descent from the Cross (1526-1528), where the character carrying the primary bulk of the dead weight of Jesus looks accusingly at the viewer.

While I don't claim that this is a definative treatment of the issue, I hope sufficient evidence has been presented to warrant further study into the actual source of the Pontormo Christ Before Pilate study owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.

View the study (from AIC Museum Studies, vol.17, no. 1) [210KB]


Bibliography for The AIC Pontormo Composition Study

Casseli's Italian Dictionary (New York, 1967)

Chiarelli, Catarina, La Certosa del Galluzzo a Firenze (Milan, 1982)

Cox-Rearick, Janet, The Drawings of Pontormo, A Catalogue Raisonne with Notes (New York, 1981)

Cox-Rearick, Janet, Dynasty and Destiny in Medici Art, Pontormo, Leo X, and the Two Cosimos (Princeton, NJ, 1984)

Forliani Tempesti, Anna, Pontormo (Milan, 1965)

Friedlander, Walter, Mannerism and Anti-mannerism in Italian Painting (New York, 1957)

Giles, Laura, The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol. 17, no.I (Chicago, 1989)

Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version

Nigro, Salvatore S., The Drawings of Pontormo (New York, 1982)

The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, 1985)

Shearman, John, Mannerism (Middlesex, 1967)

Vasari, Giorgio, trans. by Gaston du C. De Vere, The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (New York, 1979)

A note on other works consulted:

During the summer following the presentation of this paper, I continued my research at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois, where I consulted (with the assistance of a Latin instructor from St. Ignatius Academy) their fifteenth century Genoese vulgate bible and the Meditatione spore la pazzione del nostra signore Iesu Christo. Nothing in this later research contradicted the conclusions drawn in this report.

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