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Deposition
(Giulio Cesare Procaccini)

Description

This painting was first attributed to Procaccini by Patrick Matthiesen in 1978 and was published by Brigstocke in 1980, who proposed a dating close to 1618. Brigstocke recognised that the painting formed part of a group of paintings which all shared similar complex compositions with highly dramatic content and were painted during one of the most felicitous periods of Procaccini’s career: ‘l’accent est mis picturalement sur le sang, le sueur, les larmes…. Le climat d’emotion intense rapelle non plus baroque mais la première génération des maniéristes florentins, comme le Rosso et Pontormo’.

In 1989 Brigstocke again mentioned the painting in an article, which for the first time published Giorgio Fulco’s archival discoveries linking Procaccini to his major patron, Gio. Carlo Doria. Brigstocke went on to propose that The Lowering of Christ should be identified with a painting listed in a Doria inventory executed at some time between 1617 and 1620. The painting is described as: ‘Cristo in croce con la M. e S. Ag.no’ (that it to say with either the Madonna or, more likely, the Magdalen since the Madonna would most probably have been referred to as ‘V’ for Vergine and Saint Augustine). One may reasonably deduce that since the painting is not mentioned in any of the earlier inventories of Gio. Carlo Doria’s collection made between 1610 and 1616, that it was acquired at some time after 1616. On this premise Brigstocke once again proposed a dating c. 1618, which also happens to be the only time that Procaccini is actually documented as being in Genoa. Most recently the painting was republished by Rosci, who, while adding no new information, effectively confirmed Brigstocke’s proposed dating by placing it at the end of the 1610s.

A precise dating of any undocumented Procaccini commission always represents a slight problem, but Brigstocke’s proposal of c. 1618 appears entirely acceptable especially if one considers the artist’s later evolution. From the 1620s onwards Procaccini moved to a more restricted less exuberant style, which appears almost academic when compared to works only years earlier. This development is evident in his 1620 Presentation to Constantine of a Reliquary Containing Instruments of the Passion (Milan, Musei Civici). The lack of these later stylistic elements in The Lowering of the Cross makes an earlier dating more probable and perhaps lends weight to the conclusion that this, indeed, is the picture mentioned in the 1617-20 Doria inventory, even though the dimensions are not recorded. Furthermore, the painting includes a bishop-saint whose identification as Saint Augustine becomes more likely when one considers that he and Saint Jerome, also present in the composition, were both Doctors of the Church. The failure of the inventory to specifically identify Saint Jerome may either have been an oversight or alternatively may be excused by the fact that his attendant lion is barely visible in the background.

Procaccini’s activity for Gio. Carlo Doria must have been quite frenetic and of vital importance to the artist’s standing as the Doria archives indicate. During this brief span of eleven years, the artist produced ninety works; the majority being dispersed and remaining unidentified after his patron’s death in 1625. This enormous outpouring of creativity in such a limited arc of time cannot fail to have exerted considerable influence on Procaccini’s Genoese contemporaries.

If one accepts that this is, in fact, the picture mentioned in the Doria inventory then it constitutes an important element within the artist’s known chronological oeuvre. As such it may also help to date one of his more important commissions, which shares similar stylistic elements – the series of four canvasses depicting scenes of the Passion. Although now dispersed between public and private collections they constitute a progressive history of the Passion starting with Christ’s Capture in the Garden of Gethsemane (New York, Corsini Gallery –see fig.1), The Flagellation (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts – see fig. 2), The Crowning with Thorns (Sheffield, City Art Gallery – see fig.3), The Raising of the Cross (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland – fig. 4). The Lowering of the Cross shares striking stylistic and compositional similarities with the Edinburgh picture, although the protagonists are varied and replaced by the Virgin and several soldiers as is dictated by the iconography. However, the elegant angels hovering above the dead Christ in The Lowering of the Cross are reminiscent of earlier pictures, while the Parmigianesque angel in the right foreground ‘creates a highly individual bitter-sweet mood of introspection which is absent from the Edinburgh and Sheffield pictures’. The extraordinary invention of its design, and the subtle mood of melancholic nostalgia, together remind us of how the artist, by the sheer irrepressible strength of his vitality and vision, was able to breath new life into the traditional mannerist language of seventeen-century art, which by 1620 was long overdue for fundamental reform’.

The iconography of The Lowering of the Cross or Deposition is highly unusual and may be unique in Italian baroque art. Traditionally the cross is always shown erect and Christ’s body is laboriously lowered from it. Ladders, ropes or slings are usually depicted to aid the toiling figures. Brigstocke points out that Procaccini had himself used the traditional iconography in a small painting on onyx for one of the compartments of the high altar in Saint Maria della Passione in Milan. Here, the dead body of Christ lies tragically with the head tilted backwards, the weight of the lifeless corpse slumped so that the lowered centre of gravity pitches the knees outwards to project into the picture plane. Were it not for the wound, half hidden in the shadows, on Christ’s right side, it would be easy to mistake this composition for a Raising of the Cross, but the presence of the wound unequivocally ensures that our picture was intended to be read as a Deposition or Lowering of the Cross.

Regardless of whether the composition is read as a raising or lowering of the cross, the component figures are still highly unusual. Instead, of soldiers for the former or Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, James and the two Marys for the latter episode, Procaccini’s composition shows three saints: the Magdalen, who is clearly identified by the pot of ointment lying at her feet; a bishop-saint who may be identified as Saint Augustine; and Saint Jerome, whose attendant lion is half hidden in the shadows on the right margins – as well as several angels. The Magdalen appears on the left side in the foreground gazing upwards to heaven. She appears almost detached from the central group. In contrast the two male saints are in close proximity to Christ, bearing upon their shoulders the weight of the cross and once again this is reminiscent of other compositions depicting either the Lamentation or Deposition.

The composition is both inspired and a daring innovation. The cross lies in a diagonal to the picture plane with its base wedge into the lower right corner while the exquisitely elegant Parmigianesque lower right angel is pushed almost three dimensionally out of the picture surface. The cross itself is the dynamic fulcrum of the composition and the figures are ranged along its length and breadth in receding perspective. The dramatic content is accompanied by a vibrant, rapid and rather agitated brushwork where broken colour alternates with thicker impasto and neutral but subtle glazes denting the surrounding atmospheric penumbra. The flashes of colour on the angel’s wings and on the bishop’s mitre are particularly remarkable.

It is this unusual harmony between the theatrical drama of the composition and the apparent speed of execution that help to date the painting to perhaps the busiest period of the artist’s career, which began in 1615 and continued throughout the remainder of the second decade. While Procaccini does not completely abandon his late mannerist heritage, this is a period when he develops a new exuberant and vital energy within his compositions. In part this probably derives from a knowledge of Rubens’ studio practice, which he would have had occasion to observe after his first contact with Gio. Carlo Doria in 1611. During this key period the development of the Procaccini’s style can be followed in a number of seminal works: The Virgin and Child with Saints Fermo and Rustico for the parish church in Caravaggio of 1615; The Circumcision completed in 1616 (Modena, Galleria Estense); The Death of the Virgin completed the same year (Cremona, Pinacoteca); and The Last Supper which was probably executed in 1618 at the height of the artist’s Genoese output (Genoa, Church of the Annunciata del Vastato). If one places The Lowering of the Cross within this group, one is struck by shared morphological characteristics and similarities in the compositional structuring. This is particularly evident in the Cremona Death of the Virgin where the protagonists closely resemble those in The Lowering of the Cross. Indeed, the face of the figure seated in the left foreground of the Cremonese picture might almost be exchangeable with Saint Jerome . The diagonal composition, in the Cremonese picture, dictated by the figure of the Virgin and the receding spatial context has much in common with The Lowering of the Cross, which above all bears the hallmarks of a Rubenesque style in the vigorous handling of the interlaced figures and dynamic heightened drama which is further intensified by a stress on plastic form and ‘frustrated muscular energy, contained within an artificially construed space.’

It may be that The Lowering of the Cross was intended to complete the Passion series not only as the final episode but also as a symbol of the Eucharist. Alan Rosenbaum has recently shown how Eucharistic references are an integral part of many Deposition or Lamentation subjects from the early sixteenth century onwards. The Eucharistic interpretation of this subject, where the flesh of the dead Christ is almost offered to the spectators emphasises the fact that Christ died on the cross to forgive us and save us from our sins. It also invites penitence. The Magdalen, Saint Augustine and two of the angels all look upwards. They may be looking to heaven inviting forgiveness or, yet again, as in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicità, Florence, it may be that these saints were looking upwards to a representation of God the Father placed higher above the altarpiece in a lunette or in the vault above. The winding cloth envelops Christ’s body cascading into a pile of linen at the right lower corner. It mysteriously coils behind Saint Augustine’s back almost binding him to the cross while the Magdalen to the left, a symbol of penitence, clasps one end of it in her right hand, while pointing to the sacrifice of the cross. The presence of Saint Augustine, the author of treatises concerning the Eucharist, underscores this symbolism and it is noticeable that he is the only character in the composition fiercely staring out of the picture, as if to challenge the faithful to observe the sacrifice that Christ has made for them. Thus, Procaccini has subtly and in a novel way incorporated a complex Counter-Reformation message to challenge the encroaching threat of Protestantism and its challenge to the belief in transubstantiation into what must at the time have appeared as an almost shocking iconographic innovation.

ith Saint Ambrose (patron saint of Milan). See Matthiesen, Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, 1981.
Brigstocke 1980, p. 36.
This is perhaps particularly evident in the two angels which appear behind Christ’s head. These angels are extremely similar to those peering over the body of the Dead Christ in a huge Lamentation or Entombment measuring 456 x 789 cm in the church of Sant’Angelo in Milan. This latter picture has been dated between 1610 and 1615.

498
Brigstocke 1989, p. 52.
R. Soprani, Le vite de’ pittori, scoltori et architetti genovesi e de’ forestieri che in Genova operarono …., Genoa 1674, ed. 1768, I, pp. 441-42 records that Procaccini was a guest of Gio. Carlo Doria.
Rosci., 1993, p. 108.
Brigstocke 1989, pp. 51-3; P. Boccardo, Procaccini, Cerano, Morezzone. Dipinti Lombardi del primo Seicento dale civiche collezione genovesi, exh. cat., (ed. C. di Fabio) Genoa 1992, pp. 35-6, 41-7.
See M. Valsecchi, ‘Schede lombarde per G. C. Procaccini (e il Morezzone),’ Paragone, 243; N. W. Neilson, ‘An Altarpiece by Giulio Cesare Procaccini and Some Further Remarks’, Arte Lombarda, 28, 1972, pp. 22-25; J. Bober, ‘A “Flagellation of Christ” by Giulio Cesare Procaccini: Program and Pictorial Style in Borromean Milan’, Arte Lombarda, 73-75, 1985, pp. 55-80.
Brigstocke in Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, exh. cat., London, The Matthiesen Gallery,1981, p. 54.
Brigstocke, Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, 1981, p. 56.
Brigstocke, Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, 1981, p. 56.
Saint John ( 19: 31-33) ‘The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the Cross on the Sabbath day, (for that Sabbath day was on high day) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.
But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they broke not his legs’.
See the picture of the same subject by Procaccini, Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland.
Gospel of John (19: 34-35 and 37), ‘But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.
And he that saw it bore record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.’…, ‘And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced’.
Brigstocke, Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, 1981, p. 54.
It has been suggested that the Ecce Homo in The Dallas Museum of Fine Art (see fig. 5) also formed part of this Passion series. On iconographic grounds this is entirely possible and the painting on the basis of stylistic analysis must also have been executed at this time. However, the Dallas picture measures 258 x 166 cm, whereas the other paintings representing the Passion measure 210/20 x 140/50 cm. The Lowering of the Cross, measuring 238 x 171.1 cm falls halfway in between so that it is difficult to see how all the paintings could have formed part of one homogeneous cycle unless the narrower and shorter paintings have been cut down in size.
Alan Rosenbaum, ‘A Greater and More Perfect Tabernacle’. Jacopo Pontormo’s Decorations for the Capponi Chapel, Lecture given at the National Gallery, London, 30 November 2000, as part of the Pontormo Colloquium sponsored by The Matthiesen Foundation.
As Rosenbaum has illustrated, see note 16 above, the iconography of Saint Veronica’s veil clasped at the very centre of the composition in the Capponi Chapel Lamentation, is highly significant of the Eucharist – the manner in which the Magdalen in this picture clasps the piece of linen. This is perhaps a conscious reference to Saint Veronica’s veil.

Type
Oil on canvas
Provenance

PROVENANCE: Gio. Carlo Doria, Genoa (?),
Private collection,
The Matthiesen Gallery, London, 1981.
Private collection, Jersey.

Literature

H. Brigstocke, ‘G.C. Procaccini et D. Crespi: Nouvelles Découvertes’, Revue de l’Art, 48, 1980, p. 36, fig. 17.
M. Bona Castellotti, La Pittura Lombarda del ‘600, Milan, 1985, pl. 492.
H. Brigstocke, ‘Guilio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625): ses attaches génoises et quelques autres faits nouveaux’, Revue de l’Art, 85, 1989, p. 52.
M. Rosci, Guilio Cesare Procaccini, Soncino, 1993, p. 108.

Exhibited

London, The Matthiesen Gallery, Important Italian Baroque Paintings 1600-1700, 1981, pp. 54-57, col. pl. and details.

Where is It?
Acquired through the Matthiesen Gallery by The Art Gallery of New South Wales
Historical Period
Baroque - 1600-1720
Subject
Historical events
School
Italian - Lombard
Catalogue
2001-2001: An Art Odyssey (1500-1720)
Hardbound millennium catalogue with special binding with 58 colour plates and 184 black and white illustrations, 360 pages. £35 or $50 plus p.& p.

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Price band
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