The power inherent in the ivory statuette of Christ Bound, a work barely a foot high, marks it as the most important addition to the National Gallery's sculpture collection in many years. Several kinds of evidence support its attribution to the Flemish artist François Duquesnoy, who became a leading sculptor in baroque Rome. In his brief career there, Duquesnoy joined the celebrated Gian Lorenzo Bernini and two other sculptors in the prestigious commission to create four colossal marble statues of saints to decorate the piers that support the dome of Saint Peter's. Duquesnoy's statue of Saint Susanna in Santa Maria di Loreto set a standard for classical feminine beauty in the seventeenth century, and his bronze statuettes of ancient gods modeled with fluidity and grace were sought after by collectors; but the gift that launched his career was carving ivory.
Duquesnoy's design of the ivory Christ is confirmed by its close relationship to a terracotta statuette of Christ, attributed to him in a print of 1709 depicting the collection of the French royal sculptor François Girardon. This alone would not confirm his authorship of the ivory, for Duquesnoy's poignantly beautiful model of the standing captive Christ clearly had an impact in its time and survives in many variations in bronze and ivory, often with old attributions to him. The quality of this version, however, surpasses that of any known example.
The ivory manifests Duquesnoy's characteristic balance between naturalism and idealization. Beauty and anguish are conveyed in a painstaking treatment of detail that shows the feats of which this artist was capable. Veins swell on the arms and the hands that tremble in the air, cut completely free of the slender body. Fine textures define the rope around the wrists, the paper-thin folds hanging from the loincloth, and the delicate beard on the sorrowful face. Turning the curve of the elephant's tusk to advantage to express both the grace and the fragility of Christ's body, Duquesnoy created a figure that sways in the precarious balance he particularly favored. The elegant twisting movement would have reminded connoisseurs of the work of his fellow Fleming then active in Italy, the sixteenth-century Medici court sculptor Giambologna. An even more famous forerunner was Michelangelo, whose statue of the Risen Christ in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome is admiringly evoked in the ivory figure.
Conflating several moments in the story of the Passion of Christ, the statuette was probably meant to inspire meditation rather than portray a particular event. While a Christ with bound hands usually stands at the column where he suffered flagellation, no column is found here nor is there evidence that one was lost. But the figure did once wear a crown of thorns, an attribute forced on Christ when he was mocked following the flagellation. Vestiges of this crown, cut away long ago, survive around the top of the head. An owner may have demanded its removal because the crown had been broken beyond repair, or because its inconsistency with the order of events in the Gospels was considered disturbing. The decision to have the crown cut away suggests how seriously an early owner took this work.
Private collection, South America; art market, Italy; (Altomani, Milan); sold March 2006 to (Blumka Gallery, New York) and (Julius Böhler Kunsthandlung, Stamberg); sold March 2006 to (Daniel Katz, Ltd., London); sold 21 June 2007 to NGA.
- Luchs, Alison. "Attributed to François Duquesnoy, Christ Bound." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 37 (Fall 2007): 17, repro.