A masterly exploration of faith and uncertainty, spirituality and human frailty, this monumental representation of the Agony in the Garden has only recently been recognized as a work by Titian and his studio. The painting is particularly noteworthy, as it allows us to better appreciate Titian’s celebrated, but poorly conserved painting of the same subject and nearly equal dimensions in the Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial, which the artist painted for Philip II of Spain (fig. 1). Titian also produced a third variation on the theme, which was formerly in the Spanish royal collection and now in the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (fig. 2). In his illuminating 2015 study of the present painting, Giorgio Tagliaferro argues that the Osuna version is 'neither a later copy nor a studio replica of the Escorial picture; as its quality and size suggest, it must instead be regarded as another original, created by Titian with the aid of one or perhaps two assistants’ (loc. cit., p. 1). This attribution to Titian and his studio has been endorsed by Miguel Falomir, Paul Joannides, and Peter Humfrey. The following essay draws heavily on Tagliaferro’s article, and the benefit of his research is gratefully acknowledged.
Extensive documentation survives detailing exchanges between Titian and Philip II and his officials in the late 1550s to early 1560s, regarding the commission of an Agony in the Garden. Titian first mentions a painting of this subject in a letter of 15 June 1559, in which he informs the monarch that now that the Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are finished (today jointly owned by the National Gallery, London, and the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), he will apply himself to the completion and delivery of three additional pictures. Along with a Rape of Europa (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and a Death of Actaeon (National Gallery, London), Titian promises: 'mi darò il tutto a fornir il quadro del Christo nel Horto’ ('I will give my all to provide the Christ in the Garden’; M. Mancini, Tiziano e le corti d’Asburgo: Nei documenti degli archive spagnoli, Venice, 1998, pp. 246-47, no. 129). Despite Philip II’s letters entreating Titian to make haste in delivering them, on 17 August 1561 the artist confessed he was still working on the Agony in the Garden and the Rape of Europa (ibid., pp. 271-271, no. 152). The king was forced to write again on 22 October 1561 to prompt the painter, and the paintings were ultimately dispatched to Madrid on 9 April 1562, three years after they were first requested. Titian’s failure to produce his paintings according to his promised schedule appears to have been returned in kind by Philip II, however, for an Agony in the Garden was included in a list of paintings submitted to the king by Titian and his son Orazio for which he had yet to be paid.
Perhaps for this reason, an Agony in the Garden is first recorded in the Spanish Royal collection only twelve years later, in the 1574 inventory of the Escorial, which in fact mentions two paintings of the same subject by Titian’s hand. The first is documented as residing on the altar of the Priory’s Chapter House in San Lorenzo, where it hangs to this day. The second was in the antesacristy of San Lorenzo, and was transferred to the Prado in 1837. Since Titian’s letters indicate that he only sent one Agony in the Garden to the king, Paul Joannides has suggested that one of the paintings mentioned in the 1574 inventory might have been acquired from a source other than the artist himself (see G. Tagliaferro, op. cit., pp. 6 and 18, note 14). Though it remains unclear whether the Prado or the Escorial version is the one referred to in Titian’s and Philip II’s correspondence, and scholars are divided on this question, it is generally assumed that Titian sent a second version to the king sometime around 1563 (ibid., p. 6). At some point after this date, Giulio Bonasone engraved Titian’s Escorial version. Luca Bertelli also made an engraving after that painting, in reverse (fig. 3), which was published by Nicolas Béatrizet and included in the 1578 Venetian edition of Jean Henten’s Bible, setting a terminus ante quem for this second print.
While the pose, drapery and treatment of the figure of Christ are similar in all three versions, his scale within the compositions is different. Though slightly cropped on all four sides, the present painting is the largest of the group, measuring 201 x 168 cm., followed by the Escorial version, which is similarly trimmed and now measures 185 x 172 cm. The Prado composition is somewhat smaller, at 176 x 136 cm. Furthermore, the paintings represent different moments from the story. The Escorial Agony and present version show Christ kneeling beneath an angel, with the apostles sleeping soundly in the foreground and Roman soldiers approaching in the distance. In the Prado painting, Titian heightens the drama, bringing the soldiers directly into the foreground, where they march into the painting beneath a more diminutive Christ and angel, who appear above them. A black chalk and charcoal preparatory drawing for the figure of Christ, which is the unifying element in all three of Titian’s versions, is in the Uffizi, Florence. In the present work, this passage stands out for its beauty, virtuoso brushwork and delicate application of glazes, and was clearly the part of the painting to which Titian devoted the most attention. Christ’s face is conceived with deep pathos, reflecting his moment of hesitation and the inner conflict between his human and divine nature, as recounted in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26: 36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46): following the Last Supper, Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives to pray as he faced imminent suffering, 'Father, if it by thy will, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but thine be done’. According to Luke, 'there appeared to him an angel from heaven bringing him strength, and in anguish of spirit he prayed the more urgently’. When he left the garden, he encountered Saints Peter, James and John, who had accompanied him and whom he had instructed to stand watch. Dismayed, he rebuked them, '”Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”’. Returning to the Mount of Olives, he prayed once more, 'My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done’.
As Tagliaferro has noted, Titian’s Agony in the Garden is remarkable for its sophisticated treatment of light and light reflections, “One can now distinguish the quality of four distinct sources of light: the transcendental glow emanating from the angel, the natural moonlight and the gleaming dawn at the opposite ends of the sky, and the artificial sparkle of the torches carried by the looming soldiers in the distant background on the right’ (op. cit., p. 11). Titian’s brushwork is most impressive in the upper part of his canvas, particularly in loose but evocative strokes he uses to form the angel, from which light seems to quietly, yet powerful emanate; and in the figure Christ, with his subtly modeled face, and the rock behind him, upon which his divinity is reflected. The sleeping Apostles below them, who are practically illegible in the Escorial and Prado versions, are here clearly articulated with extravagant poses. The figure of Saint Peter, who reclines with hands behind his head, takes inspiration from a red chalk drawing of a Sleeping Man by Parmigianino (Chatsworth, Devonshire collection). It is in these three figures that the hands of Titian’s studio assistants may be seen, particularly in the less assured outlining of their silhouettes. Yet even here, the master’s brush is evident in places.
In the early-20th century, the present version of Titian’s Agony in the Garden was in the collection of the banker, art critic, collector and dealer, Julius David Ichenhauser, who lived in London and New York. He sold the painting at the Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, New York, on 23 March 1911 with an attribution to 'V. Bombazio’. As Tagliaferro has suggested, this is most likely a misspelling of the 16th-century Venetian painter, Bonifacio de’ Pitati, known as Bonifacio Veronese. The painting was next acquired by the American painter, Gari Melchers (1860-1932), who upon his death bequeathed it to his widow, Corinne. In 1942, she donated the painting along with the rest of her art collection to the Belmont estate, which was until then the Melcher’s home and thereafter owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Following Corinne’s death, the painting was sold by the Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, VA, which was managing the art collection. Decades later, the painting resurfaced at an auction in Bethesda, MD, as a 17th-century work, retaining its attribution to 'Bombazio’. It remains a mystery why for nearly a century this painting, which so clearly relates to two other well-known and extensively published altarpieces by Titian, was mistakenly ascribed to this imaginary artist. Fortunately, by 1990, it was finally recognized by the art historians Terisio Pignatti and Francesco Valcanover, who viewing the canvas prior to its restoration, unreservedly gave the painting to Titian (ibid., p. 11).
The painting’s history prior to the 20th century remains cloudier. In 1995, the art historian Gerald Burdon suggested that this Agony in the Garden might be the canvas that once hung in the church of San Leonardo, Venice (ibid., p. 6; private communication). A painting of this subject was first recorded there without an attribution by Antonio Maria Zanetti in the third edition of his Della pittura veneziana (Venice, 1797, II, pp. 107-08), alongside a Christ Carrying the Cross by Bonifazio de’ Pitati. Notably, neither painting appears in the two earlier versions of the book (1771 and 1792), suggesting that they were acquired by the church after it was rebuilt at the end of the century. The two paintings were listed by Pietro Edwards, delegate of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy in charge of assessing artworks in the recently suppressed churches and ecclesiastical institutions in the Veneto, and in 1810, Edwards’ collaborator Giuseppe Baldassini recorded that the works were to be sold due to their poor condition. They were acquired the following year by Giacomo Concolo. Burdon suggested that it was Baldassini who first mistakenly attributed the Agony in the Garden to Bonifazio due to its association with that artist’s Christ Carrying the Cross. While this theory is intriguing, it must remain conjectural since there is no concrete way to prove a link between the San Leonardo painting and the present work, particularly since its earliest history remains unknown. Moreover, neither Zanetti, nor Edwards and Baldassini record the paintings’ dimension and no painting of Christ Carrying the Cross by Bonifazio is known today. Nevertheless, Burdon’s suggesting is appealing as it would explain the otherwise perplexing attribution to 'V. Bombazio’ that had affixed itself to the present painting by the 20th century.
Tagliaferro suggests that this painting was produced around the time that Titian was painting his version for Philip II in the 1560s. By the 1550s, Titian’s fame was such that his was in constant demand throughout Europe, with royalty and the most powerful elite vying for his attention. In this period, Titian and his workshop began to paint numerous variations of certain of his most successful compositions, such as the Danaë, continually reworking them so that 'the majority of these variants were executed with originality rather than being treated as merely pedantic derivations, so much so it might be argued that at some stage of the production process nearly each painting reached the status of a new prototype, and that the distinction between originals and replicas became blurred’ (ibid., p. 15). Accordingly, it is possible that Titian painted the Escorial and present versions concurrently. X-rays of the Prado painting reveal that Christ’s head was originally turned rightward, as it appears in the Uffizi drawing. This alteration, made in the upper layer of the Prado painting, suggests that this passage was worked out prior to the completion of the Escorial and Osuna versions (M. Falomir, Tiziano, Madrid, 2003, p. 270), although this does not rule out the possibility that all three paintings were created simultaneously.