Work of the Week: Lavinia Fontana, “The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion”

By on March 28th, 2022 in Blog, Work of the Week

Lavinia Fontana

(Italian, 1552-1614) The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion, ca. 1581, Oil, tempera on panel, 14 1/4 x 10 5/8 in. Gift of the late General and Mrs. John J. Carty, in memory of her brother, Thomas Russell, 1936.30

Outside of my bias of having been trained as an Italienist, The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion, is one of the most important Old Masters in our collection (as a mature work by one of the few female artists of the Italian Renaissance known to us today) and one of less than a dozen by the artist in American museums. Moreover, it was the one painting in the collection of RMA that I was rather familiar with before I started working here, having requested it for a 2011 exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art. Upon my arrival at Rollins, and finally seeing the painting in person, I fully understood why the curators of that exhibition had been so distressed when the loan was not approved.

Up close, the painting – its diminutive size notwithstanding – has immense power. The skillful composition with Christ at the center, his body surrounded by six attending angels whose stances, each  mirroring another, create a delicate ballet-like movement while directing our gaze in all the right places for deciphering the iconography: the dead Christ, the cross from which he had just been taken down, the column of the Flagellation. The diaphanous pinks and light yellows of the angels’ vestments, as well as the stronger red and blue directly flanking Christ, emphasize the pallor of his dead body as well as marking him as the center of the composition. And yet, for all the narrative episodes clearly referenced (see also the Crown of Thorns and whip in the foreground), this is not a narrative painting, but rather a meditative piece – an aid to prayer and contemplation. This is reinforced by the angel to the right of Christ, robed in red, the only figure in the painting looking straight out, inviting beholders to think about what they see, and contemplate the meaning. This, together with the small size of the painting, suggests that it was intended for private devotion, likely in the private residence of the (unfortunately unknown) wealthy patron for whom it was painted.

The odds that Lavinia Fontana had to overcome to become a successful artist in 16th century Italy were enormous. And it was harder still, as a woman, to receive commissions for religious art – considered of a higher order than other genres, such as portraiture. Indeed, we know that Lavinia enjoyed both private and public commissions for mythological and religious works, and quite a bit of recognition in her time. Yet even an avowed admirer – and actual patron – of the painter wrote, a few short years after our painting was created, “This excellent painter, to say the truth, in every way prevails above the condition of her sex.”  After her death, she descended into obscurity, to be rediscovered only in the late 20th century, with the ascent of feminist art history. Amazing, in this context, is the fact that The Dead Christ with Symbols of the Passion entered RMA’s collection as early as 1936, the first important Old Masters painting to do so. I so wish I could ask the donors if they knew what an exceptional painting they had and thank them for giving it to our museum.

Ena Heller, Ph.D.
Bruce A. Beal Director

To read more on this work by Lavinia Fontana, visit our Collection page.

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