This intimate image of Christ’s head, intended for private devotion, derives from a lost picture of the Holy Face by Jan van Eyck, now known only through copies. Following the Eyckian composition, Petrus Christus treated the head like a portrait by surrounding it with a fictive frame, thereby underscoring the physical immediacy of Christ. His depiction differs from the prototype, however, in presenting Christ with furrowed brow, the crown of thorns, and drops of blood running down his forehead and onto his chest. These details stimulated a more compassionate reflection on Christ’s suffering by evoking the empathy of the viewer.
This intimate depiction of Christ’s face relates to the moment from the Gospel of John when Pilate presented Christ to the jeering crowd with the words "Ecce Homo" (Behold the man). Christus treats the head like a portrait by surrounding it with a fictive frame, thereby underscoring the physical immediacy of Christ. Christ’s Passion was a particularly popular devotional focus in the Netherlands during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In his Imitatio Christi of about 1425, Thomas à Kempis encouraged piety based on imitating Christ’s life and Passion through daily prayer. This devotional surge resulted in the production of paintings that evoked compassionate reflection on Christ’s suffering.
This painting derives from the lost Holy Face by Jan van Eyck, now known only through copies: one from 1438 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and two dated 1440 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges, and formerly J.C. Swinburne collection, Newcastle-upon-Tyne). Like Van Eyck’s image, Christus’s version includes a fictive frame, with an inscription. It is also similar in the frontal presentation, the direct gaze of Christ, and the cross-shaped, floriated nimbus behind Christ’s head. The furrowed brow and trails of blood which run down his forehead, neck, and chest differ from the Eyckian prototype (Sperling 1998). Both the Holy Face and the Head of Christ relate to a group of miraculously created images of Christ’s face, known as acheiropoetoi, which includes the image on Veronica's Veil. Christus uses a similar depiction of Christ in his Man of Sorrows painting, dating to 1444 (City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham). Christ’s visage corresponds with the description of his appearance in the apocryphal Letter of Lentulus—supposedly written by Publius Lentulus to the Roman Senate, but which actually dates from the thirteenth century. To demonstrate the perfection of Christ’s face as described in the Lentulus letter, Christus used Pythagorean and Neoplatonic ideals, basing the structure of the head on the intersection of the circle and the square, with the distance between the eyes providing the base measurement (Ainsworth 1994). Infrared reflectography has revealed a ruled underdrawn line running down the center of the face, demonstrating the importance of symmetry to its proportions. Infrared reflectography did not penetrate the blue-green background, and the only other underdrawn lines of the painting show some subtle changes in the neck opening of Christ’s garment and some slight contour lines below the eyes.
This image is painted on parchment, laid down on an oak panel, which was pared down to a sliver and remounted onto a mahogany support. Despite being on parchment, it is not likely to have been cut from an illuminated manuscript. The original dimensions must have been somewhat larger, so that the entire illusionistic frame would have been visible. Holes, which are now filled, are regularly spaced around the edge of the parchment. This may indicate that it was once tacked to a panel that could be hung on a wall or handheld for contemplation. An example of a wall-mounted Holy Face image is found in the background of Christus’s Portrait of a Young Man of about 1450 (National Gallery, London). The MMA painting is somewhat abraded, making the inscription at the bottom of the painted frame mostly illegible. It is believed to have been the artist’s name.
[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012]
Inscription: Signed (bottom, on simulated frame): Petr. . . [the remaining letters are illegible]
private collection, Spain; [Lucas Moreno, Paris, until 1910; sold to Kleinberger for Fr 1,500]; [Kleinberger, Paris, 1910–31]; Mr. and Mrs. William R. Timken, New York (1931–49); Mrs. William R. (Lillian S.) Timken, New York (1949–d. 1959)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges," April 14–July 31, 1994, no. 4.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 3.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Antonello da Messina: Sicily's Renaissance Master," December 13, 2005–March 5, 2006, no cat. number.
Max J. Friedländer. Von Eyck bis Bruegel: Studien zur Geschichte der Niederländischen Malerei. Berlin, 1916, pp. 21, 174, lists it, with works by Christus, as in the private collection of Fr. Kleinberger; mentions the illegible inscription.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 1, Die Van Eyck, Petrus Christus. Berlin, 1924, p. 149, pl. 57, as definitely by Christus, and in the private collection of F. Kleinberger, Paris.
[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert. Histoire de la peinture flamande des origines à la fin du XVe siècle. Vol. 2, Les continuateurs des Van Eyck. Paris, 1928, p. 91, pl. 70, fig. 117, as in the Kleinberger collection; mentions that Christus reproduced this work in the background of his "Portrait of a Young Man" (National Gallery, London).
Ella S. Siple. "Recent Acquisitions in America." Burlington Magazine 60 (1932), p. 110.
Wolfgang Schöne. Dieric Bouts und seine Schule. Berlin, 1938, p. 57, no. 23.
Germain Bazin. "Petrus Christus et les rapports entre l'Italie et la Flandre au milieu du XVe siècle." Revue des arts 4 (December 1952), p. 200 n. 25, p. 202, compares it with Antonello's "Salvador Mundi" (National Gallery, London); considers our painting close to the small "Christ in Majesty" by Christus owned by the poet Sannazaro and described in Pietro de Summonte's letter of 1524 to Marc Antonio Michiel.
Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamande au siècle des van Eyck. Paris, 1953, p. 187, mentions it as a signed work by Petrus Christus.
Max J. Friedländer. Early Netherlandish Painting: From van Eyck to Bruegel. Ed. F. Grossmann. English ed. [first ed. 1916]. New York, 1956, p. 15, as now in the collection of Mrs. W. R. Timken, New York.
Josua Bruyn. Van Eyck problemen. Utrecht, 1957, p. 115, says the facial type and nimbus derive from Van Eyck's "Head of Christ," known through copies, and notes that Bouts adopts this subject and expression in his often-repeated type of the Man of Sorrows.
John Rowlands. "A Man of Sorrows by Petrus Christus." Burlington Magazine 104 (October 1962), p. 420, as in the collection of Mrs. W. R. Timken [sic]; mentions it as a signed "Imago Salvatoris coronati" in which appears a decorative cruciform halo similar to that in the Birmingham painting under discussion.
Jacqueline Folie. "Les oeuvres authentifiées des primitifs flamands." Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique Bulletin 6 (1963), p. 206, observes that a recent x-ray of this painting reveals a structure totally different from that of authentic works by Christus and appears to indicate a later work; notes further that what remains of the inscription is incompatible with known inscriptions by the artist.
Colin Eisler. "Erik Larsen, Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York, 1960." Art Bulletin 46 (March 1964), p. 104, observes that "if, as seems most likely, this painting is by Christus, it would have to be a fairly early work, from the 1440's"; suggests that it may originally have been part of an illuminated prayer page like the one attached to the wall in Christus's portrait of a male donor (National Gallery, London); mentions a work reminiscent of ours and similar in size in the Hyde collection, Glens Falls.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 1, The van Eycks—Petrus Christus. New York, 1967, pp. 84, 95, 110 n. 55, pl. 79, dates it about 1450.
Lola B. Malkis Gellman. "Petrus Christus." PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1970, pp. 484–85, no. 27, fig. 79, rejects the attribution to Christus but agrees with Friedländer that it probably reflects an Eyckian prototype.
Charles Sterling. "Observations on Petrus Christus." Art Bulletin 53 (March 1971), p. 24, calls this picture and the "Portrait of a Young Man (National Gallery, London) Christus's final works of the 1450s.
Joel M. Upton. "Petrus Christus." PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1972, pp. 139–43, 152, 154, 179–80 n. 20, pp. 368–72, no. 21, fig. 21, dates it around 1444–50; calls it "a remarkable fusion of the 'imago pietatis' with the Face of Christ or 'vera icon'".
Peter H. Schabacker. Petrus Christus. Utrecht, 1974, pp. 17, 42–43, 46, 73, 80–81, 129–30, no. 2, fig. 2, discusses the inscription; observes that during the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries parchment was not an uncommon support for small pictures and mentions two other examples; suggests that this painting may have served the same function as the head of Christ on parchment, with a prayer inscribed below, that appears in the background of Christus's "Portrait of a Young Man" (National Gallery, London) [see Ref. Eisler 1964]; finds our painting close to or possibly identical with the one mentioned in Summonte's letter [see Ref. Bazin 1952]; dates it about 1444, calling it almost certainly Christus's first independent work; comments on its relationship to his Carthusian of 1446 (MMA 49.7.19) and to Jan van Eyck's late head of Christ known only through copies.
Ursula Panhans-Bühler. Wiener Kunstgeschichtliche Forschungen. Vol. 5, Eklektizismus und Originalität im Werk des Petrus Christus. Vienna, 1978, pp. 11–17, fig. 1, ascribes it to Christus, considers it probably an early work, and compares it with Jan van Eyck's "Head of Christ," which survives only in copies.
André Chastel. "La Véronique." Revue de l'art nos. 40–41 (1978), pp. 75, 82 n. 30.
Ann Tzeutschler Lurie. "A Newly Discovered Eyckian 'St. John the Baptist in a Landscape'." Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 67 (April 1981), pp. 95–96, 115 n. 40, fig. 22, ascribes it to Christus.
Sixten Ringbom. Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-century Devotional Painting. rev. ed. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1984, p. 148 [first published in Acta Academiae Aboensis, ser. A, Humaniora, 1965, vol. 31, no. 2, same page nos.].
Liana Castelfranchi Vegas. Italie et Flandres dans la peinture du XVe siècle. Milan, 1984, pp. 70, 87, fig. 57 [Italian ed., 1983].
Hans J. van Miegroet. Gerard David. Antwerp, 1989, p. 128, colorpl. 114, illustrates it as by Petrus Christus.
Joel M. Upton. Petrus Christus: His Place in Fifteenth-Century Flemish Painting. University Park, Pa., 1990, p. 1 n. 4, pp. 56–59, 64–65, 70, fig. 58, dates it about 1446.
Marigene H. Butler. "An Investigation of Two Paintings of "The Stigmatization of Saint Francis" Thought to Have Been Painted by Jan van Eyck." Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture. Ed. Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq and Roger van Schoute. Colloque 8, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1991, pp. 98, 100 n. 16.
John Oliver Hand. "'Salve sancta facies': Some Thoughts on the Iconography of the 'Head of Christ' by Petrus Christus." Metropolitan Museum Journal 27 (1992), pp. 7–17 nn. 1–2, fig. 1, discusses related images of the head of Christ, and literature and imagery connected with the cult of Veronica and the "imago non manu facta"; suggests that this is the earliest Netherlandish painting of its type, in which the passional head of Christ (with the crown of thorns) is conflated with the non-passional Holy Face; compares it with the "Head of Christ" assigned to the studio of Rogier van der Weyden, on the reverse of Rogier's "Portrait of a Woman" (National Gallery, London), dated about 1450/60.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1994, pp. 32, 34, 53, 71, 80, 86–91, 105, 115, 178–79, no. 4, figs. 19, 105, 106 (detail of inscription, diagram showing proportions, and detail infrared reflectograms), ill. p. 87 (color), suggests an early date in Christus's oeuvre despite the fact that the picture is considerably damaged and retouched; notes that the picture is based on Pythagorian ideas, expressing the idealization of the image of Christ according to a strict canon of proportion and observes that the distance between the eyes establishes the base measurement; notes that the technique of the painting and the gothic script in particular follows the handling found in manuscript illumination; concludes that it was conceived as a portrait and should be compared with other portraits such as the "Portrait of a Carthusian" (MMA 49.7.9)
Peter Klein in Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Dendrochronological Analysis of Panels Attributed to Petrus Christus." Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1994, p. 215.
John Oliver Hand. "Petrus Christus at the Metropolitan." Apollo 140 (October 1994), p. 50.
Joel M. Upton inLes Primitifs flamands et leur temps. n.p., 1994, p. 365, ill. (color).
Lorne Campbell. "New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art: Petrus Christus." Burlington Magazine 136, no. 1098 (September 1994), p. 639.
Hélène Verougstraete, A. De Schryver, and R. H. Marijnissen. "Peintures sur papier et parchemin marouflés aux XVe et SVIe siècles. L'exemple d'une 'Vierge et enfant' de la suite de Gérard David." Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture. Ed. Hélène Verougstraete and Roger van Schoute. Colloque 10, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1995, pp. 97, 103–4 n. 10.
Marta Renger. "Petrus Christus. A Renaissance Artist in Bruges." Kunstchronik 48, no. 3 (March 1995), pp. 96–97, ill.
Marigene H. Butler. "An Investigation of the Philadelphia 'Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmanta'." Jan van Eyck: Two Paintings of "Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata". Philadelphia, 1997, pp. 38, 45 n. 17.
Della Clason Sperling inFrom Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 84, 96–97, 139, 210, 238, 286, no. 3, ill. (color), dates it about 1445.
John Oliver Hand. "New York. From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Burlington Magazine 140 (December 1998), p. 854.
Maryan W. Ainsworth in Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick. Illuminating The Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe. Exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum. Los Angeles, 2003, pp. 41, 82, 94–96, no. 4, ill. (color).
Paula Nuttall. From Flanders to Florence: The Impact of Netherlandish Painting, 1400–1500. New Haven, 2004, pp. 236, 280 n. 12, pl. 262.
Pia Palladino inFra Angelico. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2005, pp. 172, 175 n. 10.
Catheline Périer-d'Ieteren. Dieric Bouts: The Complete Works. Brussels, 2006, p. 207 n. 11.
Edith Gabrielli. Cosimo Rosselli: catalogo ragionato. Turin, 2007, p. 208, mentions it in connection with Rosselli's "Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns" (private collection, New York), which was inspired by Netherlandish models.
Judie Bogers inFirenze e gli antichi Paesi Bassi 1430–1530, dialoghi tra artisti: da Jan van Eyck a Ghirlandaio, da Memling a Raffaello . . . Ed. Bert W. Meijer. Exh. cat., Palazzo Pitti, Galleria Palatina, Florence. Livorno, 2008, p. 88.
Bette Talvacchia. "Antonello da Messina's Meditation on the Suffering Christ." Around Antonello da Messina: Reintegrating Quattrocento Culture. Ed. Michael W. Kwakkelstein and Bette Talvacchia. Florence, 2014, p. 92, fig. 14.