That resurrected Christ of Marco Basaiti ... sitting around.

The Resurrected Christ by Marco Basaiti (Venice, c. 1470 - post 1530), kept at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, has a peculiarity: from what we know, it is the first time it is depicted seated instead of standing. For what reason? Let's try to give us some answers.

It is quite strange that a Renaissance painter depicts the risen Christ not standing, in a triumphant position, tall and imperious in his divine glory, but seated, in a pose that could be called everyday, almost humble. Yet this is how the Venetian Marco Basaiti restores him to us in one of his paintings that is now in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the Risen Christ that the artist signs by affixing his name in Latin, “Marcus Basitus,” in a leaflet folded into four and arranged in the lower corner of the panel, according to a usage that is easy to find in works of the late 15th- and early 16th-century Venetian period.

It is a young, handsome, Apollonian Christ that Basaiti painted. He sits atop a boulder surrounded by a rocky landscape, complete with a castle shrouded in mist in the distance, an allusion to the city of Jerusalem. The son of God in turn is standing still under a rock to which a dry shrub clings, holding in the hollow of his left arm the crucigerous banner, symbolizing his victory over death. Around his hips is the veil with which he was laid in the tomb. Near his right leg is a phrase from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Mors mihi ultra non dominatur,” “death shall have no more power over me.” The right hand shows the relative the wound on the side, while the left hand is caught in the act of moving, with an expedient that lends an extraordinary dynamism to the scene: it almost seems to be seen lifting up and then blessing the faithful. The pearly coloring of the skin was recently restored to it in 2018 by a careful restoration carried out by Roberta Grazioli, directed by Laura Paola Gnaccolini of the Milan superintendence, who restored the support and got rid of the yellowed varnishes (during the restoration there were four layers, superimposed during various interventions that the work had undergone in the past) and returned to us the image as the painter of Greek or Albanian origin had imagined it: the intervention was part of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Restitutions program, and for the occasion, a company specializing in digital reproductions, Cinello, made a faithful 1:1 scale reproduction, a “Digital Art Work” in a limited, numbered and certified series, to replace the painting while it was on display at the Venaria Reale so that the Turin public would be the first to see the results of the restoration.

Marco Basaiti, Cristo risorto (1510 circa; tempera e olio su tavola, 106 x 69 cm; Milano, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)
Marco Basaiti, Risen Christ (c. 1510; tempera and oil on panel, 106 x 69 cm; Milan, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana)

The luminous colors, the physiognomy of Christ and the harshness of the landscape recall the painting of Giovanni Bellini (the face of Jesus recalls that of Giambellino’s Christ Blessing which is now in the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and as for the setting even Roberto Longhi recalled that “the Basaiti, following in the footsteps of Bellini, had subtle thoughts in the country”) and in some ways even to that of Antonello da Messina, but entirely new, and evidently the result of a meditation on Leonardo’s painting, is the softness that characterizes the body of Jesus, which surprises us with its delicate shading. In Venice, at the dawn of the 16th century, Giovanni Agostino da Lodi was active, and it is therefore entirely plausible that Basaiti must have looked to the Lombard master, not least because of the somatic features, which, however, in the work of the Venetian become decidedly more noble and elegant than in the figures of Giovanni Agostino da Lodi. But also active in Venice was another Leonardo, Andrea Solario, who was similarly close to the turn to the Lombardian style that Basaiti manifested starting, roughly, in 1505: it is precisely to Solario that Mauro Lucco likens him. Observing the eburnean tones of the Milanese painter’s Cristi, one may consider plausible some proximity, some knowledge of his work on Basaiti’s part.

In any case, beyond any possible relationships of dependence, Basaiti’s Risen Christ , although perhaps little known to the general public, is nevertheless one of the most interesting works produced in sixteenth-century Venice, because it is pregnant with interesting novelties. Beginning, as mentioned above, with the encounter between the Venetian and Leonardo schools, already noted in 1871 by Crowe and Cavalcaselle, who in their History of painting in northern Italy spoke of the Risen Christ as a work “in which Luinesque elegance is coupled with Bellinesque softness in face.” Another unprecedented element is the “sentimental, participatory, almost moved” atmosphere, wrote Gnaccolini on the occasion of the 2018 restoration, “obtained thanks to the complete immersion of the figure in the landscape, so that certain naiveté is not immediately grasped, such as the small tomb entrance in the left foreground, resembling a lair.” And then there is that disruptive detail of Christ sitting after being resurrected. An invention of Marco Basaiti: no one before him, as far as we know, had painted the risen Christ standing still like this, as if he were resting. Why did Basaiti decide on this unusual pose? To explain it, many have looked for formal reasons. Pallucchini considered the pose a reprise of those in Bellini’s Christs. Laura Paola Gnaccolini, on the other hand, called into question the Meditation on the Passion of the Metropolitan in New York, a work by Vittore Carpaccio painted for the Scuola di San Giobbe in Venice “where the dead Christ is depicted seated, at the center of an evocative rocky landscape dominated by a primordial nature, on a throne of crumbling stone, his body soft, abandoned, the folds on his belly in great evidence, his legs open.” According to the scholar, Carpaccio’s novelty would not have left Basaiti indifferent, who thus operated a reprise of his colleague’s image in imagining his own Jesus victorious over death.

However, the formal revival must also have a symbolic value. Every element in Basaiti’s painting is calibrated to play an allegorical role. Of the fortification in the distance it has been said. The trees now dry now verdant allude to salvation, to the value of the sacrifice of Christ, who died on the cross and then rose again. Even the herbs that appear at his feet have meaning, noted Mirella Levi d’Ancona, a specialist in botanical symbolism in art: we see hyssop, a plant of the lamiaceae with many medicinal properties, which is a symbol of purification, columbine whose red blooms refer to the blood shed on the cross, the eggplant with its thorny stem. Impossible, then, for Mark Basaiti to have seated his Jesus only to make him rest.

There could be two valid symbolic reasons, possibly interconnected. For the first, one could again call into question Crowe and Cavalcaselle, who read this painting as a Man of sorrows, then believed the iconography to be that of the Vir dolorum: Basaiti might therefore have thought to merge two distinct subjects into one image, and in this sense perhaps one can also read the gesture of flaunting the wound in the side and the insistence on dry plants. It is a way of fortifying the message of resurrection as a triumph over death: Easter is the most important feast for Christians (but it has a strong meaning for non-believers as well, as Enzo Bianchi reminded us: it is the story of a man who went to death but whose love “could not end in death,” proving that “love is stronger and death cannot be the last word”). This value is well underscored by St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, evidently chosen not by chance, and to which it is necessary to refer also in order to advance the second argument: it is necessary in this regard to note that the history preceding the entry of the work into the Ambrosiana, which took place in 1827 from the collection of Count Edoardo De Pecis, is unknown. Therefore, we do not know whose work it originally belonged to, but one can imagine, due to the presence of St. Paul’s phrase, that the patron was an educated person interested in theological themes. The letter to the Romans is a text with deep and decidedly articulate theological content, the longest of the Pauline writings: the resurrection sanctions for man the beginning of a new life, redeemed from sin. “The old man in us was crucified with him, that this body of sin might be made ineffective [...]. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him, knowing that Christ, risen from the dead, dies no more.” And now that “Jesus has died, indeed has risen, he stands at the right hand of God and intercedes for us,” we read later in the text. Here, then, is what the image of the seated Jesus could be: the prefiguration of Christ seated in heaven at the right hand of the father after conquering death, ready to intercede for humanity. And, consequently, a resurrected human Christ, such as had never been seen before.