Saturday, March 7, 2015

Approved Likeness

Moretto da Brescia
Christ in the Wilderness 
c. 1515-20

Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) was Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan. In 1624 he published a Latin treatise called Sacred Painting. This polemical work only recently appeared in English, translated for the distinguished series from Harvard University Press called I Tatti Renaissance Library. Like other Counter-Reformation officials, Borromeo was keen to control artistic representations of sacred figures. From his position of exalted power, the Cardinal sternly lectured painters (like Michelangelo) who "make bodies so robust and muscular that they seem to be painting athletes, not male or female saints, and they make the facial expressions so stern and ferocious that they inspire anything but piety. Then again, some artists show the bending and joining of individual parts and limbs of the body as clinically as if they were drawing diagrams for anatomists to help treat wounds rather than images to stir up religious feelings. In fact these artists endow the movements and vigor of the saints' bodies with a degree of violence and tension that would not even be suitable for the body of a soldier. The visual and psychological affront that viewers suffer is akin to that experienced by theater-goers who go home feeling exhausted and bruised from watching people struggle on stage." 

Cardinal Borromeo shared the belief common to his age that genuine, reliable descriptions of the Redeemer's features had been handed down by successive generations of Church Fathers since antiquity. Borromeo approvingly quoted the Byzantine cleric Nicephorus Callixtus Xanthopulus who had written 300 years earlier, maintaining that "the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ was as follows: His facial expression was distinctive and lively. He stood seven palms high in all. He had blondish, not very thick hair that fell in loose curls; he had black eyebrows that were not especially arched. A marvelous grace emanated from his eyes, which were bright and penetrating. His nose was rather long. His beard was blond and not worn long. He wore his hair rather long, for neither razor nor the hand of any person except his Mother  and then only in his youth  touched his head. His neck was gradually sloping, such that his stature was not rigid or stretched tautly. Moreover his face, which had a complexion of the color of wheat, was neither round nor pointed, but resembled that of his mother in that it inclined downward slightly and was somewhat flushed. He showed a sense of seriousness and prudence combined with gentleness, as well as a readiness to forgive that was completely devoid of anger. In short, he bore a striking similarity to his divine and immaculate Mother."  

"I therefore hope," Borromeo went on, "that painters who are making portraits of Christ and the Mother of God remember this one thing, which all early Christians believed and which the Church Fathers have handed down: that the face of the Savior was notable for its striking similarity to that of his Mother, such that anyone who looked at either the Mother or the Son would easily recognize the Son from the Mother or the Mother from the Son."