According to biblical text, following his baptism, Christ was led into to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, where he fasted for forty days and was “tested by Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him” (Mark 1:13). Moretto imagines Christ steeped in introspective calm, remarkably unfazed as animals mill around him, angels fuss overhead, and a small dragon or basilisk creeps at his feet. This picture is a fragment; at some point someone cut it down at the left and top. To make this less conspicuous, the angels and cherubim were painted over, only to be uncovered more recently by conservators.
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FIg. 1. Moretto da Brescia, Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist (National Gallery, London, NG3096)
Fig. 2. An X-radiograph taken sometime in the 1960s revealed the presence of two angels at the upper right (somewhat obscured in the X-radiograph image by damage in that corner of the painting) and a nimbus of cherubs at the left that had been concealed by later repaint. These figures, original to the work, were uncovered during the 1988 cleaning and restoration.
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Title:Christ in the Wilderness
Artist:Moretto da Brescia (Alessandro Bonvicino) (Italian, Brescia ca. 1498–1554 Brescia)
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions:18 x 21 3/4 in. (45.7 x 55.2 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1911
This is an early work by Alessandro Bonvicino, known as Moretto da Brescia, who, along with Girolamo Romanino, was the dominant painter in the city of Brescia (then in the westernmost area of Venice’s mainland empire) in the first half of the sixteenth century. It represents the biblical scene that follows Christ’s Baptism, when he retired to the wilderness for forty days: "And he was there . . . forty days, tested by Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him." (Mark 1:13). Christ sits pensively in rocky terrain, surrounded by animals, some real and some imaginary. The appearance of a snake and a lion probably alludes to a verse from the Psalms (91:13): "Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet." This would also account for the dragon or basilisk-type animal at the center of the canvas.
As early as 1943, Gombosi suggested that The Met's picture was a fragment of a larger composition that may have included a Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist in the National Gallery, London (see also Penny 2004; see fig. 1 above). That the painting is, indeed, a fragment was confirmed during a restoration in 1988 that uncovered two small angels in the upper right of the composition and a semi-circle of winged cherub heads in the upper left. These had been overpainted but their existence was known from X-rays (fig. 2). The cherub heads probably formed part of a radiance surrounding a figure of God the Father appearing to Christ and ordering the angels to minister to him. Their presence makes it clear that the composition originally extended at the left and at the top. The appearance of the original work remains hypothetical. It is possible that the canvas formed part of a considerably larger devotional work, though whether this may have included the painting in London remains no more than a hypothesis. The two paintings are certainly of about the same date (ca. 1515–20), have similar landscapes and palette, and their narratives are related. In the London painting Christ is about to step on "the stony solitary path which leads to the wilderness," as described by the historian Horatio Brown in 1896 (Penny 2004). However the scale of the figures is rather different and it is difficult to imagine how the two canvases could be meaningfully joined. It is also possible that the work from which The Met's picture was excised included the portrait of a donor (a comparable example would be the Baptism of Christ with a Donor painted in the 1550s by Giovanni Battista Moroni, who studied with Moretto (private collection, Milan; see Andrea Bayer in Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, pp. 128–29, no. 37).
This painting was purchased for The Metropolitan Museum by the curator Bryson Burroughs in 1911. He had a particular interest in north Italian paintings of this school, a taste that had been developed by Charles Eastlake, the first director of the National Gallery, London, a generation earlier, and by the great Italian connoisseur Giovanni Morelli. Following their leads, Burroughs was able to put together an important group of Brescian painting for The Met (see Bayer 2015).
Andrea Bayer 2014
?Domenico Vantini, Brescia; ?his son, Rodolfo Vantini, Brescia (in 1826); Luigi Bonomi, Milan; Bonomi-Cereda family, Milan (by 1860–96; their sale, Genolini, Milan, December 14–16, 1896, no. 35, as attributed to Moretto, withdrawn; sold to Lotmar); [Lotmar, Bern, from 1896]; private collection [Cavenaghi?], Milan (by 1910–11); [Jean Paul Richter, Florence, 1911; sold to The Met]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Landscape Paintings," May 14–September 30, 1934, no. 3.
Hartford, Conn. Wadsworth Atheneum. "The Life of Christ," March 12–April 25, 1948, no. 38.
Westport, Conn. Westport Community Art Association. February 12–24, 1955, no catalogue?
Brescia. Monastero di S. Giulia. "Alessandro Bonvicino: il Moretto," June 18–November 20, 1988, no. 1.
Paolo Brognoli. Nuova guida per la città di Brescia. Brescia, 1826, p. 218, mentions a Saint John in the desert by Moretto, probably this picture, in the collection of Rodolfo Vantini; states that the collection was put together by Rodolfo's father, Domenico Vantini.
Charles Lock Eastlake. Notebook entry. 1860, vol. 1, fol. 21r [National Gallery Archive, London, NG 22/25: 1860 (I); published in Walpole Society 73 (2011), vol. 1, p. 536], notes a Saint John, possibly by Romanino, in the Bonomi-Cereda collection, Milan.
Ivan Lermolieff [Giovanni Morelli]. Die Werke italienischer Meister in den Galerien von München, Dresden, und Berlin. Leipzig, 1880, p. 444, mentions a small work from Moretto's early period in the Bonomi-Cereda collection, Milan.
Ivan Lermolieff [Giovanni Morelli]. Kunstkritische Studien über italienische Malerei. Vol. 3, Die Galerie zu Berlin. Leipzig, 1893, p. 113.
Emil Jacobsen. "Die Gemälde der einheimischen Malerschule in Brescia." Jahrbuch der königlich preussischen Kunstsammlungen 17 (1896), p. 32 n. 2.
Pietro Da Ponte and A. Canossi. Ricordo del sommo pittore bresciano Alessandro Bonvicino soprannominato il Moretto. Brescia, 1898, p. 108 [see Ref. Begni Redona 1988].
P[ietro]. d[a] P[onte]. L'opera del Moretto. Brescia, 1898, p. 76, refers to it as a dark work from Moretto's late period; states that it was withdrawn from the Bonomi-Cereda sale in 1896, and sold privately to Lotmar, Bern.
Ricordo per le onoranze tributate dall'Ateneo di Brescia nel IV centenario natalizio del pittore Bonvicino-Moretto. 1899, p. 84 [see Ref. Begni Redona 1988].
Gustavo Frizzoni. Letter to Jean Paul Richter. December 12, 1910 [see Ref. Richter 1910], writes that Morelli thought it was an early work by Moretto, while Cavenaghi ascribed it to his circle, and that it came from the Bonomi-Cereda collection.
Jean Paul Richter. Letter to Edward Robinson [director of the MMA]. December 30, 1910, calls it an early work by Moretto.
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "Recent Accessions and Notes." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 6 (May 1911), p. 123, ill. p. 122.
Giorgio Nicodemi. Gerolamo Romanino. Brescia, 1925, p. 32, ill., sees the influence of Civerchio in this work and in Moretto's Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist (National Gallery, London).
Giorgio Nicodemi. "Per gli inizi del Moretto a Brescia: lettura fatta all'Ateneo di Brescia il 5 aprile 1925." Commentari dell'Ateneo di Brescia per l'anno 1925 (1926), p. 108 [see Ref. Begni Redona 1988].
Adolfo Venturi. Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 9, part 4, La pittura del Cinquecento. Milan, 1929, pp. 124–25, 203 n. 1, fig. 104.
Roberto Longhi. "Quesiti caravaggeschi—II: i precedenti." Pinacotheca 1 (March–June 1929), p. 270, compares it with Moretto's Christ carrying the cross with a donor (Pinacoteca dell'Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and with the London Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist, dating all three works 1518 and noting the influence of Titian and Vincenzo Foppa.
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. CCCXCIII.
[Georg] Gronau inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 25, Leipzig, 1931, p. 141, lists it with the London picture and with another scene from the life of Christ in the Pinacoteca dell'Accademia Carrara, Bergamo.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 375, lists it as an early work.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 3, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 533.
Robert Eisler. "Jesus Among the Animals by Moretto da Brescia." Art in America 23 (October 1935), pp. 137–40, fig. 1, notes the rarity of the subject and the source in the Bible (Mark 1:13).
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 322.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 160–61, ill., calls it an early work, with the freedom of a sketch, and a treatment similar to the London Christ and the Baptist.
György Gombosi. Moretto da Brescia. Basel, 1943, pp. 106, 110, no. 159, fig. 113, calls it a fragment of a larger work, to which the London Christ and the Baptist may also have belonged.
Camillo Boselli. "Alexander Brixiensis - La formazione artistica del Moretto." L'arte 46 (August–December 1943), pp. 98–99, 109, tentatively dates it just before 1518.
Giuseppe Fiocco. "Un'opera giovanile del Moretto." Bollettino d'arte 33 (October–December 1948), p. 331.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 70.
Camillo Boselli. Il Moretto, 1498–1554. Brescia, 1954, pp. 31, 47–48, 125, no. 1, does not believe it is a fragment.
Cecil Gould. The Sixteenth-Century Italian Schools (Excluding the Venetian). London, 1962, p. 111, under no. 3096 [1975 ed., p. 164].
Rossana Bossaglia inStoria di Brescia. Vol. 2, La dominazione veneta (1426–1575). [Brescia], 1963, p. 1064, dates it before 1518.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 277–78, calls it a companion to the London Christ Blessing Saint John the Baptist.
Roberto Longhi. Opere complete di Roberto Longhi. Vol. 4, "Me pinxit" e quesiti caravaggeschi, 1928–1934. Florence, 1968, p. 110 [repr. of Ref. Longhi 1929].
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 145, 546, 606.
Carlo Volpe. "Dosso: segnalazioni e proposte per il suo primo itinerario." Paragone 25 (July 1974), p. 25, calls it a companion of the London picture, and considers the two works difficult to place in a reconstruction of Moretto's early career.
Mirella Levi d'Ancona. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Florence, 1977, pp. 63, 541, fig. 15, discusses the symbolism of the beech tree.
Valerio Guazzoni. Moretto: il tema sacro. Brescia, 1981, p. 17, colorpl. 5, dates it 1515–20, together with the London picture and two works in the Pinacoteca dell'Accademia Carrara, Bergamo (Christ with the Samaritan woman; Christ carrying the cross with donor); states that all four works were meant for private, domestic devotions; notes the influence of Romanino and Venetian art.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, North Italian School. New York, 1986, pp. 43–44, pl. 70, call it a fragment, possibly from the same work as the London picture, to which it is closely related; date both paintings about 1520.
[Francesco Frangi] inPittura del Cinquecento a Brescia. Milan, 1986, pp. 172, 177, ill. p. 67.
Pier Virgilio Begni Redona. Alessandro Bonvicino: il Moretto da Brescia. Brescia, 1988, pp. 22–24, 78–80, 92, 98, 102, 110, no. 1, ill., dates it 1515–17.
Pier Virgilio Begni Redona inAlessandro Bonvicino: il Moretto. Exh. cat., Monastero di S. Giulia, Brescia. Bologna, 1988, pp. 46, 48, 55, 57, 61, no. 1, ill. p. 54 (color).
Alessandro Ballarin. La cappella del Sacramento in San Giovanni Evangelista a Brescia. June 22, 1988 [published in Ballarin 2006, vol. 1, pp. 178–79].
Alessandro Ballarin inDa Bellini a Tintoretto: dipinti dei Musei Civici di Padova dalla metà del Quattrocento ai primi del Seicento. Ed. Alessandro Ballarin and Davide Banzato. Exh. cat., Musei Civici, Padua. Rome, 1991, p. 132, under no. 59 [reprinted in Ballarin 2006, vol. 1, p. 245].
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 105, ill.
Andrea Bayer inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 22, New York, 1996, p. 107, dates it about 1518 and calls it possibly a fragment.
Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 60 (Spring 2003), pp. 26–27, figs. 19 (color), 20 (before restoration), dates it about 1515; states that the recently revealed angels at right and cherubim at left had probably been painted out to disguise the fact that the work is a fragment [see Notes]; believes that the suggestions that it constituted the background of a larger work or formed a pair with the London painting remain conjectural.
Nicholas Penny. The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings. Vol. 1, Paintings from Bergamo, Brescia and Cremona. London, 2004, pp. 152–53, fig. 2.
Alessandro Ballarin. La "Salomè" del Romanino ed altri studî sulla pittura bresciana del Cinquecento. Ed. Barbara Maria Savy. Cittadella, 2006, vol. 1, pp. XXX–XI, 178–79, 245; vol. 2, colorpl. LXXI.
Barbara Maria Savy inThe Alana Collection. Ed. Sonia Chiodo and Serena Padovani. Vol. 3, Italian Paintings from the 14th to 16th Century. Florence, 2014, p. 10.
Andrea Bayer. "Collecting North Italian Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art." A Market for Merchant Princes: Collecting Italian Renaissance Paintings in America. Ed. Inge Reist. University Park, Pa., 2015, pp. 86–87, fig. 36 (color).
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