Recently rediscovered, this remarkable work by Domenico Ghirlandaio is a rare addition to the oeuvre of one of the leading painters of the Florentine Renaissance. With Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Verrocchio and the Pollaiolo brothers, Ghirlandaio formed the pivotal artistic circle of Florentine masters at the end of the fifteenth century.
Domenico’s early education began as a goldsmith in the workshop of his father, and it is here that he would gain the sobriquet ‘Il Ghirlandaio’, the ‘garland-maker’, for his specialisation in silver and gold garlands and diadems, popular among the young women of Florence. According to Vasari, he subsequently apprenticed with Alesso Baldovinetti, and may have assisted Verrocchio, whose style was clearly a source of inspiration for the young Domenico, as evidenced by his self-consciously elegant figures. The convergence of these influences would give rise to a refined and identifiable style, with which Domenico would re-envision religious stories and images through the lens of contemporary life. His workshop became the training ground for a significant portion of the next generation of artists, including his brothers Davide and Benedetto Ghirlandaio, brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi and most significantly, the young Michelangelo.
Although the tradition of depicting Christ in half-length was not new, Domenico’s representation of the Salvator Mundi, the ‘Saviour of the World’, was unique in Florence at this time, predating Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi by more than a decade. Holding a glass orb in His left hand as He raises His right in benediction, Christ is portrayed in a landscape as resolutely human, facing frontally in an immediate and almost visceral interaction with the viewer. The popularity of this mode of presenting Christ flourished in Italy in the fifteenth century, with one of the earliest influences deriving from northern Europe in Jan van Eyck’s Holy Face (now lost, the most faithful copy held in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The intense religious devotion that these images inspired was evidently in the first instance triggered by what was believed to be their physical authenticity, either as reliable portrait likenesses of Christ, or – in the case of the Veil of Saint Veronica – as a literally imprinted record of His features.
For Ghirlandaio, Northern models provided a wealth of new artistic inventions. From the middle of the fifteenth century, Netherlandish painting became increasingly available in Florence, and with the arrival of Hugo van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece in 1483 (c. 1477-8; Florence, Uffizi), there came a greater demand from patrons for ’Netherlandish elements’ in painting. It clearly presented an irresistible challenge to Ghirlandaio, who famously adapted the Portinari Altarpiece in his Adoration of the Shepherds for the Sassetti Chapel, completed in 1485. Christopher Daly, to whom we are grateful, has suggested the period of execution for the present picture to be around this date (private communication, October 2020), approaching Domenico’s altarpiece for the Ospedale degli Innocenti of circa 1486, in which the figure of Saint John the Baptist bears a striking semblance to this Christ.
Much like the Innocenti altarpiece, this work is painted in a direct yet diffuse light, creating an atmospheric unity that is evident even through the layer of aged varnish. In order to achieve the delicate textures and tonal reflections of Christ’s face and hair, Domenico painted the skin in precise hatchings using the tip of a brush dipped in tempera, with the meticulously painted hair executed with an astonishing freedom of touch. The drapery was rendered more freely in sweeping brushstrokes, while in the landscape, Domenico seemingly attempted to replicate Netherlandish techniques by applying thin transparent glazes to create an atmospheric haze, infusing the distant water and hills with the blue of the sky. While some scholars have speculated whether the present work was possibly executed by Davide Ghirlandaio, Domenico’s closest collaborator, Domenico’s authorship is evident in the manifest superiority, extraordinary quality and close adherence in style of this work to his pictures of the mid-1480s. Indeed, this was recognised as early as 1828, when it was with the London dealer Josiah Taylor, who offered it at auction as ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio...Salvator Mundi. An exquisite specimen of the master of Michael Angelo, and in fine preservation’ (op. cit.).
Infrared imaging reveals that the outline of Christ’s head and hands was laid out first in thin strokes of underdrawing, with indications of the position of his chin visible beneath his beard. The head and hair were then outlined in broader brushstrokes, showing numerous pentimenti of flyaway strands of hair and the original position of Christ’s head, painted slightly higher in the composition. In the proper left hand holding the orb, Ghirlandaio made the greatest number of alterations by repositioning it slightly from left to right, and adjusting the thumb, index and middle fingers, which originally held a smaller orb. This revision evidently occurred late in the painting process, since remains of the original paint are still faintly visible to the naked eye, with the fifth finger permanently distanced from the final larger orb, the circumference of which he incised directly into the panel.
Domenico’s careful construction of Christ’s heavy-lidded eyes, the upturned swell of his lips and the softly twining curls of hair may have been in part derived from Verrocchio’s sculptural types of Christ from this period, which Domenico also modelled in his Christ of the Last Supper (Cenacolo di San Marco) of circa 1486 (fig. 1; Florence, Museo nazionale di San Marco). For the portrayal of Christ’s purported appearance, however, Domenico evidently looked to Botticelli, who painted some of his most innovative portraits in Florence in the 1480s. Christ’s pose suggests that Domenico had a direct knowledge of Botticelli’s Resurrected Christ of circa 1480 (Detroit, Detroit Institute of Arts). Yet it is Botticelli’s Portrait of a Youth of circa 1482/85 (fig. 2; Washington, National Gallery of Art) that arguably inspired the sympathetic and finely observed realism of Christ’s tilted head and direct gaze, achieving the reality of the ‘speaking likeness’ that was so important in Renaissance portraiture, combining both an immediacy and immutability.
We are grateful to Christopher Daly for confirming the attribution on the basis of photographs.