Rare Early Renaissance Painting Gifted To The National Gallery

A rare early Italian Renaissance painting that has never been exhibited in public before has been gifted to the National Gallery, and has gone on display. ‘Christ Carrying The Cross’ has been presented to the National Gallery by Angus Neill, a loyal supporter of the Gallery.

“For many years, regular visits to the National Gallery have given me great pleasure. I hope that this gift goes some way to thanking the Gallery for all that it – and its collection – have done for me” stated Neill.

The painting is attributed to Giovanni Bellini’s workshop and is the first Venetian version of this composition known in the UK. This is the first time that the work has been publicly exhibited, having been in Neill’s ownership since 2002. The painting was made as a private devotional work, as an aid for prayer and contemplation. The painting is an unflinching depiction of Christ’s misery is an emotionally powerful image. There are no narrative elements to the work, with only a plain, dark background deliberately directing the viewer’s attention to the figure of Christ. It serves as an intimate portrayal of an individual experiencing palpable human pain.

Although the painter of ‘Christ carrying the Cross’ has not been identified, the composition derives from the great Venetian master Giovanni Bellini, yet the artist responsible for this picture – whilst under Bellini’s influence – has stamped his individuality on a subject much painted by the master and his pupils.

This particular theme was highly popular in Northern Italian painting in the last quarter of the 15th century. The subject initially appeared in Milan in the 1480s, the depiction of Christ’s face, shown with his cross on his way to Calvary, was then adopted by several well-known workshops, including that of Leonardo and Andrea Mantegna, who each created their own versions.

Caroline Campbell, National Gallery Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, stated: “There are around sixty-five known variants of this composition by Giovanni Bellini and members of his workshop. One of the best known versions belongs to the Gardner Museum in Boston. That picture was purchased by Isabella Gardner, the founder of that museum, in 1896 and was apparently her favourite. She often placed a vase of violets in front of the painting, a tradition that is maintained by the museum to this day.”

‘Christ carrying the Cross’ joins the National Gallery’s collection as the first Venetian example of one of the most important genres of private devotional painting in Renaissance Italy. National Gallery Director, Dr Nicholas Penny, said: “The painting is a great puzzle which someone among our 6 million viewers will surely be able to solve. It is also a very moving and beautiful image by which thousands will be touched and not easily forget. We are extremely grateful to Angus Neill for his generosity.”

‘Christ Carrying The Cross’ is on display in Room 62 of the National Gallery alongside works by Bellini, Mantegna and Cima.

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