In two exceptional drawings, the Netherlandish artist Lambert Lombard responded to the famous studies of Christ’s Passion that Michelangelo produced as gifts for the Roman noblewoman Vittoria Colonna between circa 1538 and 1541. This article investigates the nature of the drawing as gift in the work of both artists, with respect to practices of giving, reciprocity, and the gift of talent. In the context of his participation in the circle around the embattled English cardinal Reginald Pole, Lombard’s drawings engage with the theological and artistic significance of Michelangelo’s studies, particularly in their depiction of salvation as a gift beyond recompense. Lombard’s response to Michelangelo reflects his position as a northern European artist working in a period of intense crisis about the function of art in systems of belief.
Few topics have more immediate bearing on the complex subject of the work of art as gift than the famous set of three drawings that Michelangelo produced for his close friend, the Roman noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, between circa 1538 and 1541. These comprise a Crucifixion (fig. 1), a Pietà (fig. 2), and Christ and the Samaritan Woman, now lost but recorded in an early engraving by Nicolas Béatrizet (fig. 3). Despite the ostensible intimacy of the exchange that gave rise to these drawings, discussion of them – both at the time of their creation and in recent scholarly literature – has been widespread. Contemporaries eagerly sought access to the words and images Michelangelo and Colonna shared with one another for insights into the friendship between these important figures. Over the past decades, this exchange has itself become a site of scholarly interface between specialists in literary criticism and in art history with a focus on the emergence of new modes of poetry and drawing in the context of reform movements within the Catholic Church in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. Analysis of Michelangelo’s gifts for Colonna has largely focused on the Italian contexts of the making and reception of these drawings and on the nature of the friendship and love which motivated their creation. But the Netherlandish artist Lambert Lombard, who was in Rome in 1537–1538, produced two intricate and highly personal interpretations of Michelangelo’s designs which have largely escaped discussion: a pen-and-ink Christ on the Cross (fig. 4), of circa 1538, which relates to Michelangelo’s Crucifixion for Colonna, and Christ and the Samaritan Woman (fig. 5) of circa 1550, which responds to what is known of Michelangelo’s treatment of the subject.
In contrast to the numerous Italian copies of Michelangelo’s drawings for Colonna that appeared in a range of media, including paintings, drawings, small bronze and marble sculptures, and rock crystals, as well as prints, Lombard’s interpretations of these subjects were not produced for commercial sale or widespread circulation. Instead, like Michelangelo’s original drawings, Lombard’s responses also appear to have been produced as gifts. In the case of Christ and the Samaritan Woman, an inscription at the top of the sheet reveals that the pen, ink, and wash drawing was intended for the Netherlandish painter Pieter Aertsen. To be sure, the work of art as gift had important precedents among Netherlandish artists and humanists; giving, particularly in the context of humanist friendships, drove the production and circulation of art in a range of media including portraits but especially drawings, prints, miniatures, and other works produced to a small scale. But the drawing given to Aertsen constitutes a rare example of surviving, tangible evidence of Lombard’s dialogue with a contemporary artist who shared some of his concerns about the nature of Netherlandish art in a period of volatile crisis provoked by the spread of Protestantism.
Lombard’s other drawing related to Michelangelo’s exchange with Colonna, Christ on the Cross, resembles his earliest dated drawings, including those he produced in Rome around 1538. It is so completely exceptional in the history of Netherlandish art for its depiction of the living Christ with his muscular body presented frontally on a Y-shaped cross that the scholar Godelieve Denhaene has suggested that Lombard produced it in direct response to the concerns of his patron in Rome, the embattled English cardinal Reginald Pole. Pole was uniquely positioned to understand the significance of such a work of art. He played an integral part in facilitating Michelangelo and Colonna’s friendship and their exchange of sonnets and drawings, while also providing Lombard access to the rarefied circle of Italian clerics, humanists, and artists who exposed this Netherlandish artist to modes and practices of artistic creation that differed radically from those he had encountered in northern Europe.
While the history of drawing in the early modern Netherlands is marked by loss and a fragmentary material record, Lombard’s vast corpus of drawings is exceptional for its survival and scope. Working in the Catholic Prince-Bishopric of Liège, Lombard marshalled his considerable erudition and study of antiquity to create precise reconstructions of ancient subjects and to depict scenes from the Bible, and particularly the life of Christ, with precision and restraint. Close to a thousand sheets by Lombard are known, ranging from large preparatory designs for engravings to smaller sketches, often of just a few figures, which the artist studied from a vast spectrum of visual sources. He reworked many of these figural studies for inclusion in his “grammar,” a compendium by which he sought to analyze and pursue perfection in the visual arts.
The two drawings under consideration here stand apart from Lombard’s oeuvre on account of their provenance, size, and degree of finish, as well as their clear signatures bearing the artist’s full name and, in the case of Christ on the Cross, the abbreviation fecit, meaning “made it.” This legible mark of authorship, which the artist generally reserved for his highly finished drawings, often appears on sheets he intended to show to others. Lombard’s biographer, the Bruges-born humanist and secretary Dominicus Lampsonius, describes how the artist occasionally shared his drawings with pupils “of lesser ability” for the betterment of their work, and Lombard’s inventions frequently appear in the art of his followers. But as far as we are aware, Christ on the Cross and Christ and the Samaritan Woman were not shared with Lombard’s pupils. Their motifs do not appear in other artworks from his circle, and they were not among the drawings Lombard preserved in his studio or that were gathered in Liège after his death. Instead, these two sheets, which found their way into major European collections of drawings at an early date, reflect Lombard’s exceptional exploration, in the North, of the drawing as an autonomous work of art, invested with deep personal meaning and activated through giving.
This exploration, I argue, relates directly to the artist’s distinctive and evolving engagement with the spiritual and material dimensions of Michelangelo’s friendship with Colonna as well as the novel conception of the drawing as gift, which bound Michelangelo and Colonna in an exchange of letters, poems, and drawings that operated outside traditional institutions of patronage and the market. Lombard’s investment in this exchange derives, at least in part, from his patron Pole’s profound awareness of Michelangelo and Colonna’s intimate friendship and indeed his desire to participate in its mechanics. Pole, who was exiled from England for refusing to countenance his cousin Henry VIII’s repudiation of Catherine of Aragon, had become a leading figure in the Italian Spirituali movement. This loose association of clerics and humanists sought to reform the Catholic Church from within and occasionally, controversially, accommodated certain Protestant critiques with the objective that the Church could be reunited. Colonna, an adherent of this movement, considered Pole nothing short of a “prophet,” and Michelangelo, “being enamored of his goodness and talents,” counted the cleric as a friend, according to Giorgio Vasari. Despite his proximity to Colonna and Michelangelo, however, Pole at times found himself frustratingly closed out of their intimate union and their carefully guarded exchange of drawings and poems. Pole’s writings, and what we know of his art collection, reveal his profound interest in this exchange and his wish to be in possession of something of comparable value and significance to the works on paper that passed between Michelangelo and Colonna. This wish, I contend, may have prompted Pole to turn to Lombard with a request comparable to that which Colonna had made of Michelangelo, thereby involving this young Netherlandish artist in the dynamics of a spiritually motivated exchange centered on the gift of drawing.
Alexander Nagel has examined Michelangelo’s drawings for Colonna in terms of a shift in understanding of the function of art that arose in the context of Italian Evangelism and groups such as the Spirituali. Turning away from large commissions intended for outward and public religious observance, Michelangelo now focused on producing small drawings, particularly of Christ’s Passion, which he presented as gifts to Colonna. Intimate in size and intent, these drawings invite a direct, private relationship between God and the believer. Most notably, for Nagel, the motivations for Michelangelo’s exchange of drawings and sonnets with Colonna diverge from the model of the gift in which any act of giving obligates reciprocation. While the demand for reciprocation characterizes gift-giving in “archaic societies,” as studied by Marcel Mauss, Nagel draws on Jacques Derrida’s critique of Mauss in order to contend that within the Christian tradition so central to Colonna and Michelangelo’s exchange, the gift by its nature prevents such reciprocity; it is “beyond recompense or retribution, beyond economy.” Such spiritually driven gifts, like these drawings, are made for the purpose of being given, and they achieve completeness in their delivery to the recipient. Nagel argues that in the case of Michelangelo and Colonna, each of the two friends emulating Christ endeavors to give gifts that are complete in being given.
Nagel’s study offers a point of departure for my analysis of Lombard’s responses to Michelangelo’s drawings. Arguably more than any other Netherlandish artist, Lombard understood the theological significance of Michelangelo and Colonna’s exchange and the spiritually driven understanding of the gift beyond recompense. As will be shown, in his Christ on the Cross and Christ and the Samaritan Woman Lombard visualized the gift of salvation as both complete and unrepayable; he even modified Michelangelo’s designs to stress the immeasurability of Christ’s sacrifice as a gift beyond any system of worldly exchange. At the same time, however, Lombard’s investigation of the drawing as gift also related to socially dominant systems of reciprocity. Earlier Netherlandish artists may have exchanged isolated workshop motifs in sketches, but Lombard’s practice of giving some of his most elaborate compositional drawings freely was largely unprecedented in the North. His very ability to give a work such as Christ and the Samaritan Woman to another artist manifested the nobility of his profession and distinguished his work from the increasing commodification of Netherlandish art around centers including Antwerp. In giving these drawings, Lombard also expected that recipients partake in his vision to reform Netherlandish art; in other words, that they should reciprocate by shaping their art in the image of his ideals.
But Lombard’s drawings of Christ examined here expose another model of gift-giving defined neither by economically conceived repayment nor the gift beyond recompense. Rather, his drawings also establish a parallel between Christ’s gift to humanity and the artist’s talent, a likewise divinely given gift that the artist retains and which the artist can “give” – for example when giving a drawing as a gift – but cannot give away. In this respect, it may also be useful to refer to understandings of the gift debated by the anthropologists Annette Weiner and Maurice Godelier. Their theories help to expand our discussion to include a concept of the inalienable – of that which is retained at the same time as it is given. These insights open possibilities for appreciating the salient paradox by which Lombard might offer his drawings as gifts yet retain them as his own. His drawings as gifts carried an indexical and irreducible connection to his person and to his singular abilities, which, like the divine grace they represent, were themselves a form of an inalienable gift from God.
In the Roman context in which both Michelangelo and Lombard were working in the late 1530s, key theological debates surrounding religious images would result in the rejection, on the part of some critics, of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, which was then underway. At this time, Pole and his followers were actively seeking a middle ground between seemingly antithetical conceptions of Christian sacred truth, namely, the total individuality of Protestantism on the one hand and the tenacity of Church tradition on the other. Pole’s interaction with Colonna and Michelangelo introduced Lombard to new ideas about sacred images and their religious use outside the confines of traditional ritual practices. Lombard played a key role in visualizing Pole’s contentious teachings on salvation, which he pictured in a monochrome painting depicting one of the most celebrated humanist subjects of the time, the Tabula Cebetis, discussed below. This commission, I contend, provides a context to evaluate Lombard’s interest in drawing Christ on the Cross as a gift. In the final section of this essay, I consider why Lombard returned to the subject of one of Michelangelo’s gifts for Colonna to articulate a specific position on the value of Netherlandish art to his friend Pieter Aertsen through his highly finished rendition of Christ and the Samaritan Woman.
Encounters in Rome
Charged by his ambitious patron Érard de la Marck, the prince-bishop of Liège, to collect antiquities for his palaces, Lambert Lombard traveled to Rome in the retinue of Reginald Pole. De la Marck had offered Pole refuge when he fled England, and he may have facilitated contact between the English cardinal and his young court painter. Under Pole’s protection, Lombard was able to visit important collections along Pole’s itinerary and gained access to leading artists, including Francesco Salviati and possibly Baccio Bandinelli, whose “academy” in the Vatican Belvedere Lombard may have frequented.
Scholars have tended to focus on Lombard’s sojourn in Rome from the perspective of artistic theory and the insights he developed about composition, treatment of the body, and the status of his profession, through his exposure to Italian art and artists. However, it is also the case that Lombard’s experience in Pole’s circle in Rome placed him in a crucible of Catholic reformist teachings and shaped his approach to the sacred tasks of art. According to Lampsonius, writing in 1565, Lombard actively conversed about art with some of Pole’s closest followers, who shared his intense religious convictions. These included Bartolomeo Stella of Brescia (1480–1554), founder of the Oratory of Divine Love and a friend of Michelangelo, and the Venetian nobleman Al-vise Priuli (1471–1560), who was also a friend of Colonna. Like Pole, these men were important figures in the Spirituali movement. Priuli, Pole’s closest confidant, remained with the cardinal until his death and, according to one of Pole’s most recent biographers, was also his lover.
In his biography of Lambert Lombard, Lampsonius mentions only one work that Lombard produced for Pole in Rome – a monochrome painting depicting the Tabula Cebetis. That painting has vanished, and there are no surviving records of its precise appearance. However, there is reason to believe that Philips Galle’s engraving of the subject, based on a design by Lombard’s foremost pupil, Frans Floris (fig. 6), preserves elements of the master’s lost project. Lampsonius, who provides the only surviving account of Lombard’s lost picture, supported the publication of Galle’s imposing print after Floris. The engraving, produced from two copper plates, appeared at the Antwerp press of Maarten Peeters in 1561 bearing a lengthy interpretation by Lampsonius. His text praises the artist’s ability to evoke the properties of antique painting, suggesting parallels between Galle’s print after Floris, Lombard’s unrecovered monochrome, and the vanished ancient prototype that both artists ultimately sought to revive.
The lost ancient Tabula Cebetis is documented in a Greek ekphrasis, or vivid description. Probably composed in the first century, the text takes the form of a dialogue in which an older man explains to a young traveler the meaning of a pinax, or painted tablet, adorning the Temple of Saturn. The dialogue, which draws heavily on Stoic philosophy, appeared in a new Latin edition of 1497 and was attributed at the time to Cebes of Thebes, a disciple of Socrates and Philolaos and speaker in one of Plato’s Dialogues. In 1538, the same year in which Lombard produced his painting for Pole, the cardinal was the dedicatee of a new Greek edition of the text, published in Venice. This edition as well as the painting demonstrate Pole’s deep interest in the subject of the Tabula Cebetis, which he and his Christian humanist circle interpreted in relation to one of the most charged theological issues of the time: the role of faith in human salvation.
Following the teachings of the Spanish theologian Juan de Valdés, the Spirituali held that it was possible to maintain Catholic observance while at the same time espousing an open attitude to the justificatio sola fide, or justification by faith alone. This doctrine had become a core tenet of Lutheranism. It maintained that human salvation could only be achieved through the infinity of God’s grace and not the prescribed sacramental Church traditions. As part of its sweeping attempt to clarify Church doctrine, the Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563, officially suppressed justification by faith, but in the late 1530s, the Spirituali, and Pole in particular, still hoped to achieve a compromise and preserve the Church’s unity. Pole remained committed to the teaching of justification by faith and authored an entire treatise on the subject that remained among his papers and was published posthumously in Leuven in 1569, together with a translation of Saint Augustine’s On Faith and Other Works. This was the context in which the Tabula Cebetis became an expression of the interests of the Catholic reformers gathered around Pole. They developed a nuanced Christian exegetical interpretation of the subject as an allegory on the mechanics of human salvation, consisting of an inward and private journey toward the ultimate conferral of grace as a divine gift.
As a visual allegory, the Tabula Cebetis depicts this journey taking place within a three-tiered walled garden perched on a rocky outcrop above the sea. At lower left, a group of nude children, emerging from a cloud representing souls yet to be born, enters the garden of life through a gate presided over by Seductio. Intoxicated by the drink she offers, these novices forget the lessons of Numen – a wise old man representing divinity – and must find their path to salvation. They wind their way on a difficult course beset with personifications of vices. Although the ancient image is devoid of any traditional Christian iconography, from the perspective of Pole and his contemporaries, it could be considered to map the essential paradox of Christian grace onto a world of minute vignettes of good and evil. The viewer, confronted with a disconcerting array of choices, constructs a personal virtual journey through the image’s progressive trials and temptations.
Taken together, the small scenes of acts propelled by bad and good personal inclinations – from ignorance and greed, at left, to sacred knowledge and charity, farther up at right – instantiate the paths leading to salvation or to its non-attainment, which results in spiritual demise. The way to salvation may seem grueling and even challenging to discern for anyone in the midst of navigating the rough terrain, and yet it is clearly visible to the beholder of the image, who is able to see and therefore to judge the right way for him- or herself. In transforming the experience of the common-sense world into a mode of spiritual seeing, the image enlightens the beholder to an ultimate truth of which he or she was previously ignorant, and thereby leads to the gift of salvation. In the image, salvation is visualized at the apex of the construction where a female personification confers grace on the blessed before a round temple, enclosed by a wall and labeled the “Desideratum beatorum.” It is noteworthy that this structure resembles the votive chapel that Pole built in the Via Appia Antica. Now badly damaged, that chapel featured Doric pilasters and a front entrance surmounted by a pediment supported by columns. It was completed in 1539, around the time Pole commissioned the Tabula Cebetis from Lombard, suggesting a connection between these two pious projects and further supporting the link between Lombard’s lost painting and Galle’s engraving.
Pole’s interest in the Tabula Cebetis parallels what we know of his approach to an interiorized model of religious practice. The Florentine merchant and diplomat Pietro Carnesecchi, during his heresy trials in 1566–1567, recalled his earlier discussions with Vittoria Colonna, which took place in the company of Pole’s associates Marcantonio Flaminio, a celebrated scholar and poet, and Priuli. He described the range of theological topics the group explored, focusing particular attention on the highly controversial question of justification by faith. According to Carnesecchi’s testimony – a lengthy confession that led to his execution – Colonna followed Pole’s spiritual advice fervently. She subscribed to the conviction that it was necessary “to believe as if salvation depended only on faith, and to do good as if salvation depended on works.” This is essentially the message of the Tabula Cebetis. Devoid of overt Christian imagery, the picture displaces the mechanics of salvation away from the performance of rituals and institutionalized works for the Church and onto a series of internal choices and outwardly visible good deeds such as charity. Here, inner belief and outward deed appear side by side, in the manner that Colonna proposes. Together, they constitute an individual’s spiritual journey toward the ineffable experience of receiving grace.
Further insight into the importance of this image for Pole and his circle can be gleaned from one of the best-known yet most problematic textual sources relative to Michelangelo’s views on art: the so-called Dialogues on Painting written by the Portuguese-born painter Francisco de Hollanda in 1548. These Dialogues were compiled by De Hollanda for his Treatise on Ancient Painting and circulated in manuscript form, although they were not published until the nineteenth century. They purport to record words spoken a decade earlier, around the time of Lombard’s visit to Rome, when, in the author’s account, Michelangelo, Colonna, and Pole met in the Church of San Silvestro al Quirinale after sermons on Saint Paul preached by Fra Ambrogio Politi. According to De Hollanda’s text, in one of those exchanges, the voice ascribed to Michelangelo specifically invoked the subject of the Tabula Cebetis in order to explain how images can express a concept more succinctly than the written word, stating that Cebes believed he could “express his idea better thus, and that it would be more noble and more easily understood by all men; he then desired more to know how to paint, in order to speak, than how to write.”
In this context, the fact that Pole would call upon Lombard to produce an interpretation of the Tabula Cebetis testifies to his confidence in the artist’s superior capacity to produce an image that could bring its viewer to a higher understanding of his own spiritual condition. The path to spiritual enlightenment that it depicts relates directly to the highly visual devotional practices of the Spirituali. In these practices, which closely parallel early Jesuit teachings and the writings of Ignatius of Loyola in particular, visual “supports” such as drawings and prints serve as aids to spiritual meditation until the devout are able to see the image with “the eyes of the spirit” and then abandon the material object in favor of their inner vision. The Spirituali have therefore been described as cultivating sobriety in art as a means to achieve direct religious experience: in the austere images they promoted, a direct and personal encounter with Christ is a jointly artistic and spiritual aim. While visually dense, the monochrome Tabula Cebetis, both in Lombard’s lost painting and Galle’s engraving, conforms to this mode of spiritual viewing. It demands that the viewer create a mental path to navigate the image. In order to do this, he or she must reflect upon and internalize that pathway as an inner and ultimately personal journey toward salvation that is detached from the material image itself.
Lombard Interprets Michelangelo’s Crucifixion
The confidence Pole placed in Lombard to produce an image of the Tabula Cebetis in Rome leaves little doubt that both the artist and his patron would have understood the deep theological implications of picturing the living Christ on the Cross in a drawing which responds so powerfully to Michelangelo’s radical innovation for Colonna and its implications for the justificatio sola fide. Within the discourse that developed around Michelangelo’s drawings, the aim of producing such a replica was considered not to be the transcription of the appearance of the master’s work but rather an engagement with the theological premises driving its exceptional form, which ultimately relate to ineffable and invisible concepts of sacrifice, grace, and the gift of salvation. These concepts, which motivated Michelangelo’s exchange with his friend Colonna, also register profoundly in Lombard’s exceptional response.
Historically, in the West, Christ had been represented alive on the Cross. Beginning in the tenth century, however, he began to appear as a lifeless figure, with his eyes closed. This convention continued into the sixteenth century, when Michelangelo broke with it in his drawing for Colonna. Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi recognized the deviation when he wrote, “for love of her [Colonna], he also made a drawing of Christ on the Cross, not in the semblance of death, as is normally found, but alive with his face upturned to the father, and he seems to be uttering the words recorded in Matthew 27:46, ‘Eli, Eli, wherefore hast thou forsaken me?’” By choosing to explore the motif of Christ uttering his final words, Michelangelo and Colonna entered into one of the most fraught debates between Catholics and Protestants about the nature and essence of Christ’s sacrifice as a gift to humanity, which lay at the heart of the rift over the justification by faith. Christ’s sacrifice was the focus of many of the sermons of the charismatic Capuchin preacher Bernardino Ochino, including the Dialoghi sette, published sometime before 1540. His text features explicit descriptions of the stages of Christ’s suffering on the Cross, intended to focus the devotions of the faithful. Colonna traveled to hear Ochino preach many of these sermons, which did not articulate the justification by faith as doctrine, yet remained highly inflammatory for emphasizing the believer’s direct relationship with Christ.
Ochino’s sermons informed another problematic yet highly influential text of Italian Evangelism, the Beneficio di Cristo, written anonymously but edited by Flaminio and Valdés. It likewise stresses humanity’s absolute dependence on Christ for salvation. Although best known in its second, 1543 edition, which appeared in print a few years after Lombard’s first contact with Pole, the Beneficio explicated ideas of the Italian reformers that had taken shape in the preceding decade. The tractate’s very title, Il Beneficio di Cristo, evokes the central importance of Christ’s sacrifice for the Spirituali. Valdés, for his part, had dedicated a tractate entitled Alfabeto Cristiano to Giulia Gonzaga, who remained in a convent yet acted as patron and editor for many heretics. This text, which focuses on Christ’s physical suffering on the Cross as described in the Gospel of Matthew, sees sympathy with his anguish as a path toward deepest personal belief and salvation in terms closely associated with the justificatio sola fide. Colonna herself was preoccupied with this issue and composed a guide to a highly visual form of spiritual exercise focused on empathy with Christ’s suffering in her tractate Pianto … sopra la Passione di Christo, possibly written for Ochino and completed around 1539, but not published until 1556.
A meditation on Christ’s Passion, Colonna’s text reveals deep concern with the question of divine grace and justification, the crux of the debates animating Protestant theologians at the time, which divided their teachings from those of the Church. Luther, in his commentary on the psalms, had parted ways from tradition when he interpreted Christ’s words spoken on the Cross as a literal expression of derelictio. For Luther, God’s abandonment of Christ at the moment of the Crucifixion, and Christ’s recognition of his fate, made it possible for him to take on the sins of the world, establishing the mechanics of salvation through faith alone, whereby the believer is granted the grace of God directly through Christ crucified, as a result of faith and not the performance of sacraments or other works prescribed by the Church. In 1536, Calvin went further, interpreting God’s abandonment of Christ as a display of God’s anger and of Christ taking on the sufferings of the damned, as in the harrowing of hell.
While it remains unclear whether Colonna had a specific image before her when composing the Pianto … sopra la Passione di Christo, it has been widely observed that her words closely parallel the drawings that Michelangelo produced as gifts for her at the time. The eight surviving letters of Michelangelo’s and Colonna’s exchange – two from Michelangelo and six from Colonna – must have been written between November 1538 and the spring of 1541, although frustratingly, none are dated. These letters disclose the novelty not only of Michelangelo’s images but also of Colonna’s response to them: both the creation and reception of these works reflect a profound engagement with the subjects, all of which address the nature of faith itself as a supreme divine gift, a “gift of gifts” of incommensurable value, as Valdés and Ochino had described it.
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion absorbed Colonna sustainedly. She marveled over the drawing’s production and its meaning as unfathomable miracles of artistic virtuosity and divine sacrifice. In an oft-quoted passage, Colonna thanked Michelangelo for his Crucifixion, which “has certainly crucified itself in my memory more than any picture I have ever seen.” She studied it with a lamp, a magnifying glass, and a mirror, to illuminate and parse its forms, and, as Hugo Chapman has suggested, to shift her own attention from aesthetic appreciation of the drawing to devotion to its subject. Yet even with these glasses, Colonna was forced to admit, “certainly I could never explain how subtly and miraculously it is made.” This expression of amazement reflects Colonna’s belief that Michelangelo’s artistry, like the subject it represents, constitutes an unfathomable gift which defies even enhanced powers of physical perception.
Eschewing narrative setting and color, Michelangelo’s drawing of the Crucifixion interfaces with Colonna’s practice by representing the body of Christ through an extreme economy of means. It lays bare, in its restrained forms, the incomplete nature of any sacred representation. While traditional depictions show the body of Christ contorted and disfigured in the abjection of his grief, Michelangelo’s highly sculptural figure of Christ paradoxically embodies muscular perfection even in his suffering. He writhes on the Cross in a pose that recalls the ancient sculpture of Laocoön, the archetypal image of anguish that Michelangelo himself had helped to identify when it was unearthed decades earlier. Condivi makes no reference to Laocoön as a source for this pose but notes instead how Michelangelo had shown Christ’s body “not as an abandoned corpse falling, but as a living being, contorted and suffering bitter torment.” In the second edition of his Lives, published after Condivi’s text, Vasari modified this interpretation in describing the subject as Christ recommending his spirit to the father just before death rather than at the earlier moment from Matthew quoted above.
Lombard’s Christ on the Cross presents a startling interpretation of this nude, living Christ on the Cross that carries forward the tension between triumph and despair, between perfection and abjection. With pen and ink, instead of black chalk, Lombard drew Christ parallel to the picture plane to confront the beholder directly, implicating the viewer in the drawing’s dynamics of vision, suffering, and faith. In contrast to the relief-like appearance of Michelangelo’s design and its aestheticization of the suffering body through smoky modeling achieved with chalk and rubbing, Lombard’s linear technique creates an image that is at the same time monumental and stark. Stripped of any color and even shading, the drawing communicates in the pure, unadorned linearity of Lombard’s distinctive drawing technique. In Lombard’s more symmetrical design, Christ’s body appears rigid, his posture a marked contrast to the serpentine curve of Michelangelo’s figure. His perizonium flutters open, confronting the viewer with his nudity to call attention to the fundamental paradox of godly humanity. His muscular body fills the page, hands extending to the very limits of the large sheet of paper, which has evidently been trimmed.
While Lombard’s Christ gazes upward toward the left, in contrast to Michelangelo’s rightward gazing figure, he also parts his lips to utter the words that Condivi related to Michelangelo’s drawing for Colonna: “Eli, Eli, wherefore hast thou forsaken me?”. Rather than focus on Christ’s anguish in this moment of existential distress, his drawing follows Michelangelo’s innovation in revealing Christ in an instant of questioning instead of resignation. The surprisingly solid body shifts attention away from the physical suffering of the crucifixion and toward the resurrection as a manifestation of infinite, immeasurable divine grace. Where Michelangelo included a small stream of blood flowing down the cross toward the skull of Adam, in Lombard’s drawing, there is no blood flowing from the wounded Christ’s hands or feet, and his side has not yet been pierced. And where Michelangelo depicted lamenting angels flanking the cross, there is almost no familiar iconography in Lombard’s drawing apart from the crown of thorns entwined in Christ’s hair and the cross itself. Nothing separates this imposing image from the viewer except for a small tuft of earth to locate the scene in space.
While Colonna sought a magnifying glass in order to understand and internalize the profundity of Michelangelo’s work, Lombard turned to his knowledge as artist and historian to make sense of Michelangelo’s design and to personalize it in a manner consistent with his theological and archaeological concerns. The potency of Lombard’s revisions derives, in part, from his acute sensitivity to the historicity of the subject as well as his awareness of the stakes of Michelangelo and Colonna’s exchange. Michelangelo revived the older convention of depicting the living Christ but still showed his feet crossed, as was current at the time. Lombard avoided this anachronistic clash by drawing Christ’s feet not crossed but rather, separated, as they had appeared in earlier Christian art, including monumental Roman mosaics and Carolingian manuscript illuminations showing the living Christ on the cross.
Lombard further emphasized the historical nature of his interpretation by presenting this more archaeologically accurate depiction of the body against another historic iconography: the Y-shaped cross – an archaic, tree-like form of great personal significance to Michelangelo, who also represented such a cross in his Pietà (fig. 2) for Colonna. The latter sheet, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, has been trimmed so that the full shape of the cross is no longer visible, but its original appearance is recorded in an engraving by Giulio Bonasone (fig. 7) of 1546, and another by Nicolas Beátrizet published the following year. The motif of the Y-shaped cross held great personal significance for Michelangelo, who returned to it in some of his latest, most emotionally intense studies of the Passion. According to Condivi, this form derived from a miraculous plague cross which had been carried in procession in Florence in 1399 (Condivi mistakenly writes 1348) and was later installed in the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, where Michelangelo studied it.
Although the motif of the Y-shaped cross appeared in Italy in works associated with Giovanni Pisano in the fourteenth century, it was far more prevalent in northern Europe, particularly in the Rhineland, where examples of the so-called Gabelkreuz, or forked cross, such as that in Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Cologne, began to appear with increasing frequency in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Lombard was familiar with this form from his archaeological ventures in the Rhine Valley, where he examined local antiquities, Romanesque and medieval frescoes, and sculptural monuments in order to learn about the history of his own region’s art. From these investigations, Lombard would have known how Y-shaped crucifixes in the North were marked by their gruesomeness, often showing an emaciated Christ with gaping wounds, splayed fingers and toes, and lacerated flesh dripping with blood. Such images were so horrific that as early as 1306, Ralph Baldoc, bishop of London, condemned the Y-shaped cross as not a “true form of the cross,” and ordered examples to be removed from his diocese.
By forging a hybrid from the iconographies of two of Michelangelo’s drawings for Colonna, Lombard entered forcefully into theological debates at the crux of their exchange. In Michelangelo’s Pietà for Colonna, Mary sits before the base of the Y-shaped cross, her arms open and eyes directed upward in supplication. Michelangelo inscribed the base of the cross with the words spoken by Beatrice in Canto 29 of Dante’s Paradiso, which appear to emerge from the Virgin’s head: “one would not think how much blood it costs.” Michelangelo took this verse from Dante’s account of the blood shed by early Christian martyrs who spread the gospel and applied it to the subject of Christ’s sacrifice itself. While in late medieval devotions the “cost” of the blood refers to some sense of measurability, here, as Nagel suggests, the quotation proscribes the quantification of blood. Unquantifiable blood becomes a synecdoche for divine grace, which also flows as an ineffable gift beyond recompense.
This preoccupation with the immeasurability of Christ’s sacrifice registers in Lombard’s deliberate and radical excision of almost any sign of blood from his Christ on the Cross. In his drawing, the Y-shaped cross supports a body unmarked by bodily fluid. Although he wears a crown of thorns, no blood, tears, or other quantifiable measures of suffering appear in this depiction of the body of Christ. Only the faintest trace of a ghost trail of the blood visible in Michelangelo’s drawing appears on the base of the cross and the ground, in Lombard's image, and even that index of bodily torment is fleeting. The four nails hardly seem sufficient to bear the weight of his muscular body. The rigidity of the figure, his tense pose and tightly aligned legs, creates a sense of unnatural verticality, while the extreme frontality presses the exposed body forward, forcing a direct encounter with a figure who does not curve or twist away. All attention focuses on Christ’s exposed body and the interaction between Christ and the invisible father he addresses.
By bringing together motifs that Michelangelo explored in multiple drawings for Colonna, Lombard at one and the same time acknowledged his awareness of these designs as well as his independence as an artist capable of reinterpreting their forms through a meaningful process of selection. In this light, the histories of the Y-shaped cross in Tuscany and the Rhineland may have implications for understanding Lombard’s remarkable response to Michelangelo and its appeal to Pole. At a time when artists staked their fame on copying Michelangelo’s motifs, Lombard deliberately resisted doing so. When he examined Michelangelo’s drawings for Colonna, possibly through intermediary copies, he entered into dialogue with Michelangelo’s image, its theological significance, and its history as he understood it, shaped by his perspective as a northern European who arrived in Italy with a deep awareness of the history of art of his own region.
Rather than approach Michelangelo’s designs as foreign and rooted primarily in classical sculptures, like the Laocoön, which he was seeing in Rome for the first time, Lombard, I argue, perceived forms in Michelangelo’s religious art – specifically, the anachronizing features – which were both familiar and deeply meaningful to him precisely because of their close affinity to earlier pictorial traditions associated with northern European art. Writers including Vasari interpreted Michelangelo’s early Temptation of St. Anthony, a painting based on a print by Martin Schongauer, as proof of the artist’s preoccupation with northern fantasia. Aby Warburg, in a seminal essay of 1903, went further, arguing that some of Michelangelo’s most extreme representations of grief in the Passion also derived from northern prints. He argued that Michelangelo’s Lamentation (London, British Museum), produced around the same time as his drawings for Colonna but for an unknown patron, reflected the artist’s knowledge of an engraving of the subject by Master E. S., a contemporary of Schongauer (fig. 8). While art historical traditions have focused on identifying antique sculptural sources for Michelangelo’s figures, Warburg believed that the Master E. S. engraving, stripped of ornamental detail, provided Michelangelo with an emotionally charged formula (Pathosformel) for picturing the dead Christ with Mary as co-sufferer. Michelangelo’s transposition of this form onto a heroic body did not diminish the impact of his graphic source, but rather gave it new currency in an Italian figural vocabulary.
While Michelangelo’s attention to northern art, and specifically printmaking, has long been acknowledged, its parity with Lombard’s contemporary interests has passed unnoticed. Yet, Lombard was equally attuned to the emotive force of Schongauer’s engravings, which he identified as a landmark in the development of the visual arts north of the Alps. In a letter to Vasari sent in 1565, Lombard enunciated the importance of Schongauer as a key reformer, who not only produced novel compositions expressly for the medium of engraving but also succeeded in channeling the extreme emotion of the first-generation Netherlandish oil painters and earlier northern sculptors into the modern medium of print. For Lombard, Schongauer’s works were able to transmit the spiritual intensity of such masters as Rogier van der Weyden (whom Lombard describes as Schongauer’s teacher) by stripping away the distractions of color to reveal meaningful forms. In Lombard’s view, the ways in which Schongauer’s prints enhanced the legibility of these emotive religious motifs brought art closer to perfection. In his own designs, Lombard modified Schongauer’s figures to conform to what he believed to be a canon of perfect human form, but he retained the poses and gestures through which these earlier engravings communicated emotional intent. Lombard’s and Michelangelo’s shared interest in Schongauer’s prints and in late medieval Christian iconographies opens the possibility that when Lombard encountered Michelangelo’s art in Rome, he may have seen echoes of his own artistic tradition. Identifying an affinity with Michelangelo’s explorations in sacred iconography may have driven Lombard’s confident appropriation of these resonant motifs when he undertook to make his own drawing of the living Christ on the cross.
As discussed above, Lombard’s Christ on the Cross fuses elements from two of Michelangelo’s drawings for Colonna into a complex, multivalent image with interlocking historical and spiritual purposes. In one of Michelangelo’s drawings there is a living Christ with an ordinary cross; in the other, there is a dead Christ in Mary’s lap before the Y-shaped cross associated with the northern tradition that emphasized Christ’s suffering quite explicitly. For Colonna, this juxtaposition recalled her own explication of the importance of the Virgin as attendant to Christ in the Pianto … sopra la Passione di Christo. In that text she envisioned a scene of the Virgin cradling the dead Christ beneath the Cross such that her body becomes at once his bed and his sarcophagus. However, Lombard leaves the Virgin out of his exploration, restoring the uncommon cross to its iconographic origins. The emphasis his drawing places on the figure of Christ, while archeologically precise, is also consistent with Pole’s interests as a patron, focused on acquiring images of Christ, as distinct from those of Colonna, who identified closely with the Virgin and sought out images of Mary. Lombard’s omission of Mary further relates to core ideals of the Spirituali articulated in such controversial texts as the Beneficio di Cristo, which advocated a religion focused on a personal relationship with Christ over the economies of intercession associated with the Virgin, the cult of saints, and the prescribed works of the Church.
Gifts in Exile
All hopes that the Church might accept the precepts of the Spirituali were dashed when Ochino defected to Protestantism and fled to Switzerland less than a year after the Colloquy of Ratisbon had failed to achieve reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants over issues including the justification by faith. Following Ochino’s defection, the death of the reform-minded Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, and the emergence of the Roman Inquisition, the Spirituali began to disintegrate. Pole participated in early sessions of the Council of Trent. Yet whether on account of ill health or, as Dermot Fenlon has suggested, a crisis of conscience, he withdrew from those deliberations in 1546, absenting himself from signing the decree on justification. In the papal election of 1549, he lost by just one vote to his arch-rival, Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa. As Paul IV, Carafa rejected compromise and actively suppressed the Spirituali and their teachings, precipitating Pole’s return to England in 1554 with an ill-fated mandate to restore the nation to the Catholic fold under Mary Tudor.
On his journey back to England, Pole passed through the Low Countries and met Lampsonius, who joined the cardinal’s court and became his Latin secretary until Pole died in 1558. Lampsonius never mentions Lombard’s Christ on the Cross specifically, but his Life of Lombard provides important evidence of how Pole and his colleagues, many of them dissident Italian émigrés actively protected by the cardinal, prized drawings and other small works of art, which they upheld as objects of paired spiritual and artistic value and as aids to private devotion. In his biography of Lombard, Lampsonius describes seeing drawings by Lombard that members of Pole’s entourage kept in their collections. These same members of Pole’s entourage who, according to Lampsonius, praised Lombard’s lost Tabula Cebetis as the finest artwork by a non-Italian artist they had ever seen, fiercely guarded even the artist’s smallest studies of figures as valuable possessions. Lampsonius was astounded by Lombard’s drawings, especially the figure studies of “nude bodies of both sexes” in a variety of postures. Although there is no record of the exact drawings Lampsonius saw, they may have resembled Ten Nude Seated Figures (fig. 9). This surviving fragment derives from a page of Lombard’s “grammar,” the compendium the artist produced over the course of his career to visualize the perfection of art through the study of the human body – not as an end in its own right, but as the foundation for a new religious art.
If we accept that Lombard’s Christ on the Cross aligns closely with Pole’s theological interests and his singular perspective on the exchange between Michelangelo and Colonna, then it is logical to ask what place such an unusual drawing would have had in his collection. Pole’s activities as a patron and collector have long been neglected, but a new focus on them reveals how he might have appreciated a drawing such as Christ on the Cross. The cardinal’s earliest biographer, Ludovico Beccadelli, made few references to Pole’s patronage. This is surprising, since Beccadelli knew of Pole’s relationship with Michelangelo. Acting as Pole’s intermediary, Beccadelli himself exchanged sonnets with the artist. These include an astounding poem of 1556 in which Michelangelo addresses Pole, lamenting the cardinal’s forced exile from Rome with verses that tellingly evoke the subject of the Cross: “Per croce e grazia a diverse pene / son certo, monsignor, trovarci in cielo” (Through the cross and through our various sufferings, I am certain, monsignor, that we shall meet in heaven).
Thomas Mayer, the most important modern scholar of Pole’s life, went so far as to describe his patronage as a “failure,” citing the prelate’s apparent lack of resources and his disregard for traditional forms of clerical sponsorship. More recently, Lorraine de la Verpillière has introduced a nuanced interpretation based on close study of the works of art Pole acquired as well as the artists whom he supported, particularly after his return to England. Her investigation demonstrates Pole’s abiding interest in the art of Michelangelo and his predilection for small, mobile works of art that could be transported and shared discreetly among friends united by their beliefs. Pole’s name can be associated with only a few large-scale artistic commissions, including the renovation of a wing of Lambeth Palace in an Italianate style and an elaborate program for his own tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, which he commissioned Lampsonius to design. Apart from these two architectural projects which are now lost, however, Pole focused almost exclusively on acquiring works of art characterized by modest size and sobriety. In keeping with an English culture of politicized and performative gift exchange, Pole cultivated giving as both a political performance and a pious practice, which helped to maintain his associations with allies at court. Yet, the gifts that moved among the tightly knit circle of Italian clerics who accompanied Pole when he returned to England were not necessarily objects of high intrinsic value, but rather works of art invested with deep spiritual meaning. They often depicted scenes from the end of Christ’s earthly life in austere images that responded to the work of Michelangelo and played an important role in Pole’s devotional exercises.
It has been argued convincingly that Pole brought Michelangelo’s follower Marcello Venusti, an artist praised for miniatures, to England. Although the scope of Venusti’s work there is uncertain, Pole’s agent in Rome, Gianfrancesco Stella, owned a miniature of Christ on the Cross by Venusti, which Stella preserved like a relic in an ebony frame. This object has not survived, but other works Pole owned also point to a preoccupation with Michelangelo’s depictions of Christ’s death. These may have included a remarkable Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels (fig. 10) by the Croatian-born artist Giulio Clovio, which has recently been connected with Pole’s collection. Like Venusti, Clovio was praised by contemporaries for his ability to render the monumentality of Michelangelo on a miniature scale. These two artists shared a set of patrons with similar religious outlooks, which register in certain artworks they produced contemporaneously and in the discussions on art and spirituality in which Clovio apparently participated. Clovio’s workshop in the home of his patron Alessandro Farnese served as the setting for De Hollanda’s Fourth Dialogue, in which De Hollanda introduced Clovio to the circle of Michelangelo and Colonna. It was probably through his contact with this group that Clovio came to draw Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels and other works that reflect his knowledge of Michelangelo’s exchange with Colonna.
Although executed in red chalk as opposed to black, Clovio’s Dead Christ Mourned by Nicodemus and Two Angels recalls Michelangelo’s drawing of the Pietà for Colonna in its composition, style, and emotional intensity. But it also departs radically from that work in the way it removes Mary from her usual position supporting her dead son and replaces her with the figure of Nicodemus. The latter does not look down at the dead Christ nor upward toward heaven, as Mary often does in such images. Instead, he peers directly outward to return the beholder’s gaze. Nicodemus, Christ’s early follower who concealed his faith to preserve his security, was frequently cited by members of Pole’s inner circle, and by Pole himself, as a model for dissembling dissenting views while conforming outwardly to Catholic practices, particularly after the start of the Council of Trent. Michelangelo, for his part, also appears to have identified with Nicodemus, possibly on similar terms of disguising non-conformist views. The significance of this identification has been widely discussed, particularly in reference to his probable self-portrait in the guise of that secret yet devoted follower of Christ in the Florentine Pietà, the late sculpture that Michelangelo purportedly tried to destroy. It has also been suggested that Michelangelo represented his own features in a solitary figure wearing a Phrygian cap, sometimes also identified as Nicodemus, appearing at the far right of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter fresco in the Pauline Chapel. According to Anne Dillon, this fresco’s iconography responds closely to Michelangelo’s discussions with Pole and Colonna on the subject of the justification by faith in the context of the Council of Trent. In the drawing by Clovio, not only the emphasis on Nicodemus aligns with Pole’s theological stance, but also the absence of Mary, which, we have seen, accords with the Christocentrism that Pole advocated.
The suggestion that Pole owned Clovio’s drawing is given additional support by our knowledge of the way in which small works of art, particularly drawings and engravings related to Christ’s Passion, circulated as exalted gifts among Pole’s followers. Lampsonius himself received a small illuminated tondo of the Holy Family with Saint Joseph by Clovio as a bequest from Pole’s close friend and follower George Lily, who had mediated between Pole and Colonna decades earlier. That work is now lost, but in a letter to Clovio dated 1570, Lampsonius described his deepest admiration for the image – not only for its absorptive evocation of a sacred subject he could admire closely, but also for its function as a gift that made his now-absent friend present. In a traditional court culture, such a precious gift from an elevated patron recompensed the subject’s loyal service and created an obligation of ongoing devotion. But Lily’s gift, made posthumously, defied such reciprocity. Instead, it obliged the recipient to remember the giver in perpetuity. In the context of Pole’s circle, this “remembrance” hinges on the materiality of the miniature and the inalienable gift it represents. The painted illumination passes from one individual to another upon death yet always remains “Lily’s gift.” It depicts the Virgin, Christ, and Joseph, whose bond is proleptically inscribed in Christ’s sacrifice as the supreme gift, likewise made in death and beyond any economy of recompense.
Lily’s gift to Lampsonius provides insight into how Lombard’s Christ on the Cross could be understood to operate as a response to Michelangelo’s invention in jointly spiritual and artistic registers. We know from an exchange of letters in 1546 that Pietro Bertano, bishop of Fano, had asked Pole to lend Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga a “Christ by the hand of Michelangelo in the form of a Pietà, even if you see the whole body.” It has been suggested that the drawing in question was the Gardner Pietà, although it may have been a copy. Pole was willing to lend the drawing, he responded, because he could obtain a copy from Colonna, which suggests that copies circulated as gifts when a work’s owner did not want to part with the original. At a deeper level, however, he no longer required the material drawing or a copy, because he had absorbed its forms through devotion so completely that he “carrie[d] it by faith sculpted on his heart.”
Lombard’s Christ on the Cross was anything but another “copy” of Michelangelo’s designs. His drawing closely observes Michelangelo’s innovations and successfully personalizes the ideas motivating them. If the Crucifixion as a subject allowed Christians to identify with Christ’s martyrdom and accept the grace of his sacrifice, then Lombard’s study, which removes all distraction from that subject even to the extent of excluding the traditional mourners John and Mary, permitted a direct and unmediated access to the most essential meaning of the motif. Like the Tabula Cebetis Lombard is known to have painted for Pole, this drawing elicits a highly personal form of piety albeit through a vastly different pictorial strategy centered exclusively on the contemplation of Christ’s body as interpreted through Lombard’s inimitable draftsmanship. There are no intercessors or quantifying metrics of the sacrifice, only a moment of existential questioning embodied in a figure who confronts us with his humanity. The attenuated forms of Lombard’s design might be seen to aid and quicken the “sculpting on the heart” Pole desired, inviting completion in the mind and heart of the engaged beholder who seeks to internalize the supreme gift it embodies. Within this theological framework, the drawing-as-gift mirrors and enacts the subject it portrays. Like divine grace, it is offered freely, outside an economy of quantifying metrics. It embodies Pole and Lombard’s singular relationship which, in Lampsonius’s account, was founded on deep spiritual affinities and resisted all semblance of traditional, economically based patronage.
Lombard’s time with Pole came to an abrupt end in 1539. Lombard’s patron Dela Marck died, and he returned to Liège to reunite with his family and find new employment. But the drawing Christ on the Cross does not appear to have been among the works he brought back from Italy, many of which remained in his personal archive. Instead, a prominent crease running through the drawing indicates that it was once folded over in the manner of a letter, suggesting it was either sent or else transported among other small personal effects. The crease, still perceptible where it bisects Christ’s thighs, may be the material trace of the process of giving or keeping this gift. As discussed above, the prominent, full signature on Christ on the Cross further indicates Lombard’s deep personal investment and close attachment to this drawing and marks the work as inseparable from his singular talents, through which he gave form to the design that he was now prepared to share. Lombard’s distinctive signature had particular currency among his closest admirers, such as the cartographer Abraham Ortelius, who preserved Lombard’s signature cut from a letter, probably one addressed to Ortelius, which the artist concluded with the salutation “u willigste,” or “your most devoted.” Ortelius mounted this specimen of the artist’s handwriting in his Album amicorum (fig. 11), or friendship album, along with the engraved portrait of the artist that appeared as the frontispiece to Lampsonius’s biography, which Ortelius himself had helped to publish. The juxtaposition of Lombard’s autograph and his likeness, a unique combination in that album, underscores Ortelius’s understanding of the inalienability of his divine skills, which are manifest in his person as in the singularity of the strokes of his hand.
Like a letter to a friend, the signed Christ on the Cross, for Lombard, assumed a rarefied status as an object always already intended for a recipient. As an autonomous work of art, it was produced not for sale or as the basis for a painting or print, but rather for circulation among a community of friends with whom he shared his inventions and ideas in networks of exchange, friendship, and giving. There is no record of the provenance of this drawing before it entered the Radowitz collection in the nineteenth century. However, the fact that it was separated from Lombard’s drawings at an early date, in combination with all the factors above, suggests that the artist may have intended it as a gift for Pole. It would have been an ideal gift, as it seems to have been designed to incorporate his theological stance while meeting his devotional interest in scenes of the Crucifixion produced at an intimate scale. The Christ on the Cross, then, would have served as a gift in at least two senses, on the one hand reciprocating the gift of artistic and spiritual insight that Pole had activated for Lombard through access to his closest friends, and, on the other, visualizing divine grace, a spiritual gift which, like the artist’s inherent skills, ultimately defied recompense.
Gifts of Faith
Lombard’s practice of giving drawings as manifestations of his intellectual and spiritual interests again coalesced in response to Michelangelo’s exchange with Vittoria Colonna when he produced Christ and the Samaritan Woman (fig. 5) for Pieter Aertsen. Like Lombard’s Christ on the Cross, his Christ and the Samaritan Woman exhibits a degree of finish unusual in the artist’s drawn oeuvre. The addition of wash lends exceptional plasticity to the figures. Their monumental bodies dominate this dramatic encounter, which again unfolds around the theme of salvation as a gift. Lombard’s signature at lower right, again featuring the Latinized version of his first name, indicates that he considered this drawing, like his Christ on the Cross, to be finished. At its lower edge, the sheet is further inscribed in Dutch “voor langhe peire,” or “for tall Pieter,” as Pieter Aertsen was known. This vernacular dedication unambiguously articulates the drawing’s status as a gift. Lombard’s gesture of marking this drawing as a gift for Aertsen parallels the narrative it portrays by highlighting the enigmatic nature of generosity that cannot be quantified or adequately repaid.
The Gospel of John (4:1-42) recounts how Christ, weary from his travels in Samaritan territory, sits beside the well of Jacob and asks a woman for water. The woman, startled by a request that transgresses traditional laws segregating Jews and Samaritans, asks Christ, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” He responds, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you water.” The woman is incredulous, since Christ has no bucket, but he explains that his offering is spiritual, a “spring of water” in the hearts of the faithful. He foretells a time when “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The Samaritan woman then returns to her town and encourages her people to hear Christ preaching.
The origin of Lombard’s composition lies in the drawing Michelangelo made for Colonna that is generally considered to be the last in his cluster of three gifts for her. It is usually dated to 1542–1543, based upon Colonna’s mention of “my woman of Samaria” in a letter she sent to Michelangelo after she had left Rome to join Pole in Viterbo. As mentioned above, Michelangelo’s drawing is lost and known today only through prints, including the engraving by Nicolas Béatrizet (fig. 3), which was republished no fewer than six times, as well as several preliminary drawings for the figures’ heads. Scholars have related the subject of Michelangelo’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman to the gender dynamics of his friendship with Colonna, focusing on how the drawing might figure the Samaritan woman as a model for Colonna’s active role in the Catholic reform.
Colonna identified closely with the subject of Christ and the Samaritan Woman – an encounter in the Gospels that revolves around themes of grace and salvation embodied in a personal meeting between Christ and a woman whom he has chosen to spread the universality of the Christian message. Yet, her understanding of the Samaritan woman’s agency as Christ’s follower was complex. In her Pianto, Colonna expressed ambivalence toward the Samaritan woman, who received Christ’s teaching but appeared to abandon Christ at the Crucifixion. Here she set up a contrast between the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene, the “unworthy” woman who received Christ’s ministry and remained faithful to him. The juxtaposition of these two subjects is implicit in Michelangelo’s design. Colonna knew that Michelangelo had based his Christ and the Samaritan Woman on the composition of his earlier depiction of Christ and Mary Magdalene in a drawing of Noli me tangere of around 1531. That drawing served as the basis for a painting Jacopo Pontormo made for Colonna (Florence, Casa Buonarroti).
But in an undated sonnet, Colonna expressed a more positive perspective on the Samaritan woman as being humble and sincere before Christ and playing an important part in spreading his word. Bernadine Barnes and Sally Hickson have cited Colonna’s sonnet for Michelangelo and his final drawing for her evidence her identification with the Samaritan woman as a leader and possible model for her own approach to spreading the message of Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of grace. As the only woman involved in the Viterbo circle, Colonna emphasized the importance of the Samaritan woman’s conversion as well as her transformation into a believer and teacher whose receipt of the gift of grace was both humbling and empowering.
Béatrizet’s print was probably Lombard’s immediate source for this subject. But, again, he introduced important changes that reveal his quest to probe the meaning of the subject and appropriate it for the context of his northern humanist circle in a period of increasingly violent religious hostility. Rather than focus on the woman’s confusion about the sort of “drink” on offer, Lombard emphasized the intangible and inalienable nature of Christ’s measureless “largesse.” Shifting the focus away from the narrative context of the Gospel, his drawing foregrounds the mystical tension inherent in this encounter between Christ and a follower who is depicted in the process of becoming receptive to his word. As in his Christ on the Cross, Lombard achieved a new meaning by studying and combining multiple sources of theological significance. Both Christ’s unsteady posture next to the well and the woman’s dynamic approach, with left foot raised to climb a step, derive from a different print source – Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving Martha Leading Mary Magdalene to Christ (fig. 12), after a design by Giulio Romano of around 1520. This source prompted Lombard to reconfigure Christ’s gesture relative to Béatrizet’s print after Michelangelo’s lost design. Christ no longer touches his breast with his left hand, as in the Béatrizet engraving, but rather uses it to support himself on the small bench. And with his right hand, he no longer points upward in a deictic gesture explaining the sentiments of his heart and their heavenly origin. But nor does he raise his hand in greeting, as in the Marcantonio Raimondi print. Instead, traces of preparatory black chalk visible on the sheet show how Lombard reworked this pivotal passage in the composition extensively and with great care so that Christ extends his hand outward in an open gesture that can be read as choosing, teaching, and blessing.
The gesture of the woman also departs from both printed sources. She does not point downward at the well to ask how Christ will accept her water when he has no bucket, as Michelangelo had represented her doing, but rather raises her finger to her chin in a gesture of puzzlement. With her face cast in shadow, she ponders what she is being told and why she has been chosen to receive such a gift. A large tree evidently appeared behind Christ and the Samaritan woman in Michelangelo’s lost design, separating the composition into two halves and emphasizing the distance – both physical and spiritual – between the figures. Lombard moved the tree to the right, so that the two figures appear in the same space, with only the elaborate well between them. Their gazes do not meet. The woman casts her eyes downward, and Christ – easily identified by his halo – looks past her. His eyes are fixed on a point in the left distance, possibly the Samaritan town that is in need of conversion.
These changes result in a fundamental shift in the moment this drawing represents and in its significance. The Béatrizet print shows the woman in a posture of incredulity, questioning how Jesus can ask for water from her, a Samaritan, while in Lombard’s drawing the moment is that of Christ’s response: “If you knew the gift of God, … you would have asked him, and he would have given you water.” By focusing on Christ and his limitless gift, which has been offered to the Samaritan woman before she even recognizes it, Lombard brought this drawing into close dialogue with his earlier treatment of Christ on the Cross and that drawing’s representation of divine grace as a “gift” that cannot be quantified in blood or any other physical substance. Although Protestant reformers accepted the place of water in the rite of baptism, they famously took issue with the metaphor of grace as a liquid, a concept which Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus had traced to an inaccuracy in the Vulgate’s translation of the Greek. For Luther, as for the Spirituali receptive to his teachings, the gift of the word, like that of grace, is unquantifiable and freely given without the precondition of good works or even full recognition on the sinner’s part of what is being given. Faith alone justifies the gift. Again, Pole had weighed in on this matter. When the Council of Trent proposed a point-by-point refutation of Lutheran doctrine, he adopted a position radically close to Luther’s justification by faith: justification precedes charity, and grace is God’s gift, bestowed freely even to sinners.
It is unlikely that Lombard would have arrived at such a carefully studied revision to Michelangelo’s design without awareness of these theological implications. With heightened attention to historical detail, Lombard revised Michelangelo’s figures to present them in more accurate antique dress. He also decorated the all’antica well with putti and swags of garland framing pseudo-hieroglyphic symbols including a spindle, sandal, lamp, owl, skull, and eye, which were thought at the time to connote life, death, and divine worship. And he gave the vessel balanced on the well an elaborate, satyr-like spout that appears antique in form and calls attention to the importance, in the biblical story, of the symbolic nature of water. These details further evidence Lombard’s erudition as well as his interest in the historicity of the image as a measure of the veracity of the teaching it visualizes. It is significant that the pseudo-hieroglyphs, purportedly belonging to an antique pictorial language familiar to the initiated, appear on the well, the literal source of water, alerting the viewer to the mysterious significance that goes beyond the aqueous substance at the core of the metaphor. These symbols further enhance the truth claims of the composition by associating it with the ancient past and the biblical Levant.
None of Lombard’s Netherlandish contemporaries are likely to have understood this message better than Pieter Aertsen. Aertsen’s works of the early 1550s offered a radical critique of the art market and secularization of art at the same time as they introduced new categories of painting for sale. This evident tension finds expression in Aertsen’s own interest in visualizing salvation as an inalienable gift that exists in sharp contradistinction to the world of material goods which he brilliantly conjured in the medium of oil paint. In Still Life with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (fig. 13) – perhaps the first of the important genre of “inverted still lives” he formulated – Aertsen directly addressed the gift of spiritual enlightenment when he juxtaposed an abundant display of luxurious goods in the foreground of his picture with a small background painting-within-the-painting depicting the parable of Christ visiting the house of Mary and Martha and preaching a sermon on precisely the topic of faith as a divine gift. The biblical story represented in the back of this “split” image is noteworthy for its classicizing style, with figures in all’antica dress arranged in a perspectival construction around a Serlian fireplace with a large architrave supported by caryatids. These features of the embedded image, particularly the decorous staging of bodies in a logical space, closely parallel Lombard’s treatment of the body in his learned designs. It is even tempting to see Christ’s pose in Aertsen’s work echoing that of the seated Christ in Lombard’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman. If Aertsen was alert to Lombard’s use of Marcantonio Raimondi’s Martha Leading Mary Magdalene to Christ as one of the sources for his drawing, he may have perceived a direct affinity to his contemporary exploration of the figure of Martha. More broadly, the visible clash between profane and sacred realms in Aertsen’s picture relates to the subject of the drawing Lombard sent him and the contrast between the material world and spiritual gifts it visualizes. In Lombard’s drawing and Aertsen’s painting, then, we see two artists engaging in a visual discourse on the nature of salvation as a gift beyond economy, and on the ways in which Netherlandish painters might represent that intangible concept in a period of acute crisis for religious art provoked by Protestant iconoclasm.
Aertsen’s inset biblical scene, unexpectedly relegated to the back of the picture, depicts the passage in Luke, chapter 10, in which Christ rebukes Martha for attending to the affairs of this world while praising Mary, who has “chosen for herself the best part of all, that which never shall be taken away from her.” In order to emphasize that this is the very moment and message depicted, Aertsen inscribed the first half of that verse in Dutch across the frieze of the fireplace, “Mary has chosen the better part.” Inviting his viewers to complete this partial quotation in the vernacular, Aertsen involves the beholder in assaying the gifts of the spirit that can never be taken away. Both Aertsen’s painting and Lombard’s drawing thus open a compelling dialogue on the tensions between the inalienable gift of spiritual enlightenment and its relationship to commerce, and on the power of art to visualize and mediate between these realms. Lombard’s reaction to this tension, especially through his contact with Pole, gave rise to a new sacred art focused almost exclusively on images of Christ’s Passion and a career at odds with the market forces of his time. Lampsonius’s biography stresses – and the material record supports the claim – that Lombard largely refused to paint pictures for sale. He was said to believe that it was better to wait for clerical patronage and religious commissions, even at risk of penury, than to debase himself by producing works that pleased the eye with color but offered little substance. We have also seen that he gave away his drawn designs freely, to improve the work of his pupils, and for the betterment of art in the Netherlands.
Christ and the Samaritan Woman instantiates this model of giving drawings as gifts in the service of higher aims for art. For Aertsen, the recipient, the very tension between sacred and profane provoked a rupture in his work in which, according to Victor Stoichita, painting could no longer take its religious authority for granted. Stoichita has shown that paintings like Still Life with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, one of several variants on the theme Aertsen produced, introduced metapictorial devices such as frames and pictorial inversions in order to call attention to clashes between different and competing types of images in an era widely associated with the spread of the Reformation, iconoclastic acts of destruction, and the emergence of a new concept of “art” that is self-aware. The crux of this awareness, for Stoichita, resides in the striking disparity between the image of Christ’s offering of salvation as an inalienable gift, in the back of the split picture, and the abundance of earthly commodities filling the foreground. Their vividness and luster lure the viewer away from the inset picture, which Aertsen painted in a reduced palette that recalls Lombard’s views on the restraint in color befitting religious art. The worldly goods nearly occlude the sacred image and, in so doing, they threaten to foreclose on the role of art in visualizing immaterial concepts.
An intriguingly similar tension between sacred art and material riches emerges in the account of Aertsen’s life in Van Mander’s biography, published in 1604, which closely parallels tropes in Lampsonius’s earlier characterization of Lombard’s noble poverty. Although Aertsen’s works depict copious and diverse worldly goods, particularly foodstuffs, he apparently cultivated a reputation as a humble man who undersold his paintings, lived modestly, and valued church commissions even at the expense of further commercial success in painting for the market. His Still Life with Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, while presumably painted for the market, enacts this very tension by showing in such vivid terms the two realms Christ differentiates in his admonition to Martha: the true gifts of the spirit, which are given freely to believers, and the world of material commerce, which serves to distract or even divert the believer from the true path.
The impressive, finished pen-and-wash sheet Lombard gave to Aertsen testifies to an exchange between them concerning the spiritual tasks of art in relation to the nature of salvation as a gift, which had lasting implications for how both artists went about their practices in an age of acute crisis over representation. While Aertsen addressed this crisis through his novel approach to painting, in which sacred and secular zones began to separate visibly, Lombard did so primarily in his accomplished religious drawings. He gave some of these to friends who were prepared to understand the close parallels between Lombard’s act of giving, the subjects he pictured, and their origins in one of the period’s most consequential exchanges of images addressing the nature of salvation itself as a gift. In Christ on the Cross Lombard extracted motifs from Michelangelo’s designs for Colonna in a manner resonant with the spiritual and aesthetic interests of Pole. In Christ and the Samaritan Woman, inscribed as a gift, Lombard appropriated Michelangelo’s composition for Colonna and remade it into a picture of his own outlook on art and devotion as paired gifts, which he shared with a Netherlandish contemporary receptive to his ideas. In both cases, Lombard expanded the contexts for the gift from Michelangelo’s bond with Colonna to foster a larger network of alliances. The culture of spiritual and artistic gift-giving, especially as Lombard encountered it in Pole’s retinue, served as an ideal for his own practice, in which he reified the concept of the gift as an alternative to the predominant market-driven trajectories for art in the Low Countries and the historic focus on oil paintings produced for donors and for sale. The drawings of Christ that Lombard produced as gifts foreground the spiritual and intellectual values he believed his art was capable of generating. They also reveal his understanding of how certain gifts, like art itself, can never be fully given away.
About the author
Edward Wouk is reader in Art History and Cultural practices at The University of Manchester. He is a member of the editorial boards of Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, Renaissance Studies, and Manchester University Press. His publications include Frans Floris (1519/20–1570: Imagining a Northern Renaissance, 2018) and a critical edition of the published treatises on art by Dominicus Lampsonius, 2021) as well as the co-edited exhibition catalogues Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael, and the Image Multiplied (2016) and Albrecht Dürer’s Material World (2023).
Photo Credits: 1, 5, 6, 8 © Trustees of the British Museum, London. — 2 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. — 4 Staatliche Museen Berlin – Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz. — 7 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. — 9 IRPA / KIK / Jacques Declercq. — 10 Réunion des musées nationaux / Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michel Urtado. — 11 Courtesy of Cambridge University Library, Pembroke College Collection, Cambridge. — 3, 12 Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. — 13 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
© 2023 Edward H. Wouk, published by De Gruyter
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