Drawn in preparation for Sebastiano's painting of Christ carrying the Cross now in the Prado, Madrid (M. Hirst, Sebastiano del Piombo, Oxford, 1981, pp. 80-2 and 132, pl. 113). Professor Hirst has kindly confirmed the attribution to Sebastiano on studying the drawing in the original, suggesting that it is a study for the earlier treatment of the composition rather than the later version of the subject now in The Hermitage, Saint Petersburg (M. Hirst, op. cit., pp. 133-5, pl. 167). The soft chalk technique and the delicately regular hatching can be compared to other drawings by Sebastiano of the early 1520s such as the Head of Saint Francis in the Uffizi, Florence, connected to Sebastiano's work in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, presented in 1524, and the Martha in profile to the left in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, connected to The Raising of Lazarus in the National Gallery, London, presented in 1519 (M. Hirst, op. cit., pls. 93 and 103). The fall of drapery, the direction of the light and the pose of the figure in the painting follow the drawing extremely closely. However, although the drawing shows the position of the Cross above the figure's shoulder, the facial features are different, and it seems likely that this drawing is actually a portrait of one of Sebastiano's studio asistants assuming the position of Christ carrying the Cross.
Little is known about the early history of the commission of the painting. Scholarly opinion has been divided on whether to date the picture to the beginning or end of the 1520s, with Hermann Voss, Bernard Berenson and Michael Hirst all suggesting the earlier date. The present drawing may help to confirm this thesis since it bears the characteristic inscription of the Viti-Antaldi Family Collection, 'R[aphael]. V[rbino].' in the lower left. This group of drawings seems to have been formed by Timoteo Viti, who was Raphael's last chief assistant and an executor of his estate. If Viti had owned the drawing then the picture with which it is connected must date from before Viti's death in 1523. Viti's descendants hoped or believed that all the drawings were by Raphael, and duly inscribed them with his initials. This is unfortunately not a foolproof guide as the mark is found on a number of drawings by later 16th Century artists such as Veronese. The collection remainded with the family in Urbino until a small selection was sold to Pierre Crozat during his visit to Italy in 1714, with the great majority, including the present drawing, being sold to the London dealer Samuel Woodburn by the last Marchese Antaldi, a descendant of the Viti family, in 1830.
In view of the early history of others among Sebastiano's paintings of this type such as the later version of the composition now at the Hermitage it would appear likely that it was commissioned by a Spaniard living in Rome. Professor Hirst suggests that the patron may have been Luis Fernández di Cordoba, Duke of Sessa, who was Emperor Charles V's ambassador at the Papal court from 1522 until his death in 1526 (M. Hirst, op. cit., p. 80). The picture seems to have been first recorded in Cassiano dal Pozzo's journal of his visit to Spain in 1626 when it was in the Spanish Royal Collections at the Escorial (E. Harris and G. de Andrés, 'Descripción del Escorial por Cassiano dal Pozzo', Archivo español de arte, XLV (1972), p. 20), and remained there until it was transferred to the Prado in 1839.