Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Jacopo Bassano's unfinished Baptism of Christ ca. 1590

Jacopo Bassano
Baptism of Christ
ca. 1590
Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Spectral figures of Christ, Saint John the Baptist, and three angels are shown in a nocturnal landscape. John leans forward and, turning back, baptizes Christ, who is also depicted leaning forward, as though shedding his scarlet robe. His tormented face expresses foreknowledge of his tragic destiny. The three angels serve as counterpoints: one, holding Christ's robes, gazes at him ecstatically while a second looks upward, at the mystical apparition of a dove in the black sky. The horizon is lit by the rays of the setting sun.

This extraordinary picture  deeply expressive and unique in Renaissance painting for showing the Baptism of Christ as occurring at night  is the last known work by the great Venetian painter Jacopo Bassano, who left it unfinished when he died in 1592. It was viewed by his heirs as his artistic testament and was retained by them rather than completed and delivered, as would have been the normal practice. They evidently felt that, as in the case of Michelangelo's and Titian's unfinished works, the picture fully expressed Jacopo's intentions. ... 

The idea of 'non finito' (unfinished) as an expressive style rather than a mere description of the physical state of a work of art originates in the Renaissance. Ridolfi describes Bassano's late pictures as 'done in slabs (copli) of color.'  In the seventeenth century a sketched-in work might actually be preferred to a picture brought up to a high degree of finish. To our eyes, this 'non finito' seems a crucial step towards modernism, and the comparison of this work by Bassano with, for example, Goya's 'black paintings' is inevitable. Comparisons with the last paintings of Caravaggio as well as with Rembrandt have been made. However, to a Renaissance viewer the analogy was, instead, with what they would have read in Pliny's Natural History: 'It is also a very unusual and memorable fact that the last works of artists and their unfinished pictures such as the Iris of Aristides, the Tyndarus Children of Nicomachus, the Medea of Timomachus and the Aphrodite of Apelles which we have mentioned, are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists' actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval's beguilement we feel regret that the artist's hand while engaged in the work was removed by death.'

What cannot be doubted is that Bassano here explores an expressive intensity  dark in mood as in palette  that is a direct and deeply personal response to Titian's late pictures (in particular Titian's two versions o f the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence and his unfinished Pieta, painted to decorate his own funerary chapel) ... "

 from the museum catalogue entry by Keith Christiansen, 2010

Martyrdom of St Lawrence 
Church of Santa Maria Assunta (I Gesuiti), Venice

Martyrdom of St Lawrence
Monastery of El Escorial, Madrid

Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice