Hidden composition revealed under Botticelli’s painting “Man of Pain”

This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.

Sandro Botticelli’s rediscovered and arrested man of pain, set to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s on January 27 – with a $ 40 million guarantee – has yet to be fully investigated as he is in the hands of private since the 19th century.

But the technical analysis undertaken by the auction house in preparation for the sale has already revealed an unexpected discovery: an intriguing image of a Madonna and Child, buried under layers of paint.

Chris Apostle, the senior vice president and director of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in New York, who has had the opportunity to ponder the image in depth, believes it is an abandoned composition by a “Madonna of Tenderness” (a type derived from Greek icons), in which the Virgin cradles the head of the infant Christ intimately against hers, cheek to cheek. The facial features, in particular the nose, eyes and laughing mouth, which he identifies as belonging to the Baby Jesus, are very visible in the infrared image, if turned upside down.

An infrared image of “Man of Sorrows” reveals the faint outline of a Madonna and Child below. Credit: courtesy of Sotheby’s

This head occupies a space under the Man of Sorrows chest, while what appears to be an eye and eyebrow, belonging to a female head, protrude from the area near Christ’s right hand, according to Sotheby’s. There are also traces of a white undercoat, possibly cadmium, in the lower part of the figure. Other visible parts of the abandoned composition include what resemble folds of a coat, with decorative bands around the shoulder and part of a sleeve, and the child’s chubby arm is also discernible.

Some lines in this lower drawing are thicker than others, suggesting that they may have been drawn from a standard cartoon and then run in liquid pigment. But the head of the infant Jesus, suggested the Apostle, is a “unique”: there is no replica in any Botticelli autograph or studio work for what we see here.

The red outline on an upside down image of the painting shows the Madonna and Child below.

The red outline on an upside down image of the painting shows the Madonna and Child below. Credit: courtesy of Sotheby’s

So, is it unusual to find such a sub-drawing? The apostle says he has encountered this sort of thing before. “The sign was a precious commodity in the Renaissance,” he explained. one wouldn’t want to throw it away. “And so, it seems, Botticelli took the panel, turned it the other way around and decided to use it for an extraordinary composition, which reflected religious angst. half a millennium of Italy at that time.The new work is tentatively dated to around 1500, when the predictions of the apocalypse and the hopes for personal salvation had reached a particular level of intensity.

The poplar panel used by Botticelli was the standard painting medium in Renaissance Florence. Sotheby’s technical analysis reveals a crack in the middle and an old knot in the wood and shows the panel was “reconfigured at some point in the 20th century,” according to Apostle. It is sandwiched on a modern board, with the original back and front on either side (“a type of masking,” the apostle explained). The paint layers are in “fairly good condition,” he continued although a bit chewed up around the edges, and there are additions at the top and bottom of the image.

The face of the Baby Jesus (turned vertically for clarity) is visible in the infrared image.

The face of the Baby Jesus (turned vertically for clarity) is visible in the infrared image. Credit: courtesy of Sotheby’s

The infrared images also show that Botticelli made certain adjustments to the composition, according to Sotheby’s analysis. For example, the tip of a finger that probed the gaping wound on Christ’s side is now covered by his robe, and there is a change in the position of the wound and the profile of the thumb, with the effect that the wound is “minimized” a bit, as the Apostle said. There is also evidence that Botticelli altered the length of Christ’s hair, his chin, and the placement of some of the crown thorns as well as his eyebrows.

Regarding Botticelli’s typical pictorial technique, the apostle said that “he changed it” here, by mixing tempera and oil. “It is very difficult without making samples to say what the binding medium is,” he said. “But the technique seems pretty consistent with what I would expect to see. We have the XRF technology so we can look at, for example, the element cadmium, and we have a lead map, which shows where the fillings are. and losses. Pigments include chromium, titanium and so on – all the pigments you would expect to see. “

As with Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Cockade”, sold last year by Sotheby’s in New York for $ 92 million, lead paint is used extensively throughout the composition, with some mixed with preparatory soil for gesso.

“Man of Sorrows” will be auctioned on January 27 at Sotheby’s New York. Credit: courtesy of Sotheby’s

The small cross at the top of the composition was rendered by marking lines in the surface of the painting, and then moved (such incisions are also visible in “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Cockade”). “It would have been far too right,” said the apostle, although the cross and Christ were still positioned asymmetrically. This asymmetry contrasts with a comparative contemporary image, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (another anomalous old master image, which sold for $ 450 million at Christie’s New York in 2017), where Christ is presented from rigid way, as in the famous “Veil of Veronica” relic of Christ.

“For me, what I find touching is that Christ is a little off-center,” said the apostle. “Botticelli nodded slightly, which is more human.”

At 55 or older when painting the work, Botticelli would have been in the last decade of his life, the apostle pointed out. “I feel there is something about this image that Botticelli is projecting, an understanding that we are all going to die – it has a deep emotional charge,” he said. “If he had represented Christ full and rigid, it would look more like an icon, a little more impenetrable.”

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