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Christ Crowned with Thorns
1606; black chalk and gray wash heightened with white on green-blue prepared paper, incised for transfer and laid down
163 x 132 (6 7/16 x 5 3/16)
The Duke of Devonshire and the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
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The contrast between three faces, two of cruelty, one of grace, is at the heart of this small composition, the supreme technical perfection and expression of which shows that Annibale's ability to draw did not diminish despite failing health and depression in his later years.
Carracci's version of Christ Crowned with Thorns shows two demonic soldiers preparing Christ for public display. Made in preparation for an etching that is signed and dated 1606,1 the study served as a modello for the print. Annibale drew the composition in great detail on a sheet of green-blue prepared paper, and the dark ground heightens both the drama and the emotional intensity of the scene. Although the etching is restricted to a palette of black ink against ivory paper, the drawing has the effect of a chiaroscuro print and is a tour de force of draftsmanship at this late moment in Annibale's career. Once completed, this highly finished composition was incised with a sharp instrument to transfer the image onto an etching plate of nearly identical size. Christ Crowned with Thorns was to become one of Carracci's most copied prints.2
While one soldier binds Christ's hands with rope, pulling tight on the cord, the other, his own hand protected by his iron gloves, pushes the Crown of Thorns deep into Christ's bowed head, a poignant and jolting detail. In the drawing, the soldier behind Christ ties his hands, whereas in the print he gives him the reed scepter, a mocking act. The thin stick Christ holds in the drawing is the symbol both of his power on earth and of the cross on which he will be crucified.
The drawing emphasizes highlights and shadows, and on the paper Annibale drew the lightest elements with particular attention, using layers of white gouache applied with a brush. Not only Christ's robes, but the light on his neck, beard, and chin appear luminous against the green-blue ground, ensuring that the tiniest details, such as the glint on the soldier's chain mail, and even the ugly white hairs bristling on his chin, would be cast into relief.
Christ's long neck, his pose of submission, and the utter cruelty of his tormentors bring to mind not so much Titian's great painting of this subject in the Louvre, to which this tiny composition has often been compared,3 but rather Caravaggio's Flagellation (Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte) and Crowning with Thorns (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).4 Both of Caravaggio's paintings and Annibale's drawing, as well as Annibale's earlier painting of the subject (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale), are ultimately dependent on the majestic altarpiece by Sebastiano del Piombo, in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, up the Janiculum Hill from the Tiber River and just behind Annibale's abode in 1606.
The print for which this drawing is a study, and two others of the same
year, The Adoration of the Shepherds (see Cat. 94) and The Madonna della
Scodella, for which there is also a full preparatory drawing, are the last
documented works of Annibale's life.
4. The Flagellation was painted in about 1607, when Caravaggio was already in Naples (see Gregori in New York and Naples 1985, no. 93). The close relationship between this painting and Annibale's print suggests that Caravaggio may have seen the etching before leaving Rome. Particularly striking is the repetition of the gesture of the soldier who forces down Christ's head with his fist (as is noted by Wallace in Boston-Cleveland-Washington 1989, 112). Caravaggio's Crowning with Thorns also bears striking similarities to Annibale's etching, but its date is uncertain and it is not clear which artist influenced the other. For a review of the dating problems, see Gregori in New York and Naples 1985, 316-318. See also Marini 1987, no. 35, who dates the painting to 1599.
William, 2d duke of Devonshire (Lugt 718); Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth, inv. 430
Washington and tour 1969-1970, no. 24, fig. 21a; London 1973- 1974, no. 24; Washington 1979, 468, under no. 21, fig. 21a
Malvasia 1678 (1841), 1: 86; Posner 1971, 2: 73, under no. 174, pl. 174b; Jaffé 1994, 84, no. 486; De Grazia 1984, 245-246, under no. 21, fig. 341a; Bohn 1996, 264, under no. .021, repr. 266