Day 51 – The True Cross

Giambattista Tiepolo, The Discovery of the True Cross, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Just over a week ago I talked about Verrocchio’s lively bozzetto, or Model, for the Funeral Monument for Cardinal Niccolò Forteguerri (Picture Of The Day 42), and I mentioned that a bozzetto could be any type of sketch (or model) that an artist creates as part of the development of a new work. That happened to be a relief sculpture in terracotta, and today we have a bozzetto which is an oil painting. In case you were wondering, this should be pronounced ‘bot-tsetto’, the double ‘z’ being pronounced as in pizza, and not as in razzle…

It is a gorgeous little thing, measuring just 50cm across, and shows just how brilliantly Tiepolo could handle paint, with freedom, delicacy and precision. He doesn’t get a great press nowadays. People tend to find his pale pinks and blues a little bit chocolate-boxey – which is a great pity, as they are gorgeous colours, light and airy, and ideally suited to a fine spring day on the Venetian lagoon – or dawn in La Serenissima at any time of the year, to be honest. These colours evoke the spirit of the place, and given the vast areas of ceilings he was required to paint, it is hardly surprising that he chose to simplify matters by painting so much sky. Tiepolo is also seen as being on the frivolous side of religious painting – which is simply not true. If only more people had found quite so much joy in the depiction of saints and of sanctity, the church itself might have had a better press. 

The bozzetto is a sketch for a circular ceiling painting originally made for the Church of the Capuchins, which is not so terribly far from Venezia Santa Lucia (the railway station) or, in Tiepolo’s day, the Church of St Lucy (which was destroyed to build the station). I don’t think I’ve ever been in – but then, that’s probably because the Tiepolos aren’t there: the finished painting has ended up in the Accademia, in the same room as the bozzetto. It shows The Discovery of the True Cross, the high point of a story which is rather wonderful, but far too long to tell here (well, it does start with the death of Adam…) There are two main fresco cycles illustrating the story, one in Santa Croce in Florence (which makes sense, as the Church is dedicated to the True Cross), and the other is in San Francesco in Arezzo – we saw the Annunciation by Piero della Francesca from this cycle back on the Feast of the Annunciation (25 March, POTD 7). It is not a coincidence that both are Franciscan Churches – St Francis himself had a particular devotion to the Cross (POTD 29), and as the Capuchins are a reformed Franciscan order, it’s not surprising that they were interested in the same subject. 

The Legend of the True Cross is recounted in full in The Golden Legend. This episode comes towards the end of the story. After the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, it says, his mother, the Empress Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to find the Cross on which Jesus was Crucified. On arrival, none of the locals would tell her where it was, although it was clear to Helena that they knew. So she had one of them, named Judas (probably not a coincidence – it must have been part of God’s plan) thrown into a pit. Seven days later he was more than happy to dig up the Cross himself. However, he got more than he bargained for: he dug up three crosses. Not only was Jesus’s there, but also the two on which the Good and Bad Thief had been Crucified. But which was the True Cross? Judas came up with a cunning plan. As it happened, the funeral procession of a young man came past. I used to think that the deceased went by the name of Lazarus, which also wouldn’t have been a coincidence, but I might have made that up, as I can’t find any evidence for it just now. I’ll stick with it, though, to make things simpler. The funeral bier was placed on the first cross – but nothing happened. It was then placed on the second cross – nothing again. Finally, when they got to the third, Lazarus stirred, came back to life, sat up, and then promptly knelt down in adoration. This was it – the True Cross!

This bozzetto might be the one that Tiepolo would have shown to the Friars to get their approval. Would this composition would suit them? As with so many canvasses designed for a ceiling, it is painted da sotto in su (from below, looking up – POTD 44), as if we are at the bottom of the hole which was dug to find the crosses. The True Cross is held aloft, with the Empress Helena, or St Helen (she became a Saint because of this, and because of her association with Constantine), standing at its foot, and pointing up to it. On the other side of the hole, Lazarus kneels, having fought his was out of the shroud, praying in thanks for his renewed life and in awe of the discovery of the Cross. His funeral bier is dark and discarded in the shadows at the bottom of the sketch. Behind Helena, in the shadows, is a Bishop – his mitre forms a silhouette against the sky. On the other side of the sketch looms the silhouette of a Roman soldier on horseback. Angels float on Tiepolo-pink clouds up above, one of them waving a thurible, or censer, while others pray and throw their hands out in astonishment.

Accademia – Giambattista Tiepolo, L’esaltazion della Crose e sant’Elena

If we get close in, and look at a detail, we can see how effortlessly Tiepolo seems to have thrown it together. St Helen’s creamy white robe flows around her body, picked out by a minimum of brushstrokes made with a loaded, small brush, in shades of dark brown (for the shadows), creams and whites, flicked on to create movement and form. Then, in an even darker brown, he has drawn in the outline to define the shape. You would think he would start with the ‘drawing’ and then do the ‘colouring in’ – but Tiepolo does it the other way round: get everything in more or less the right place, and then check you know where that is. Dufy would do the same a couple of hundred years later.

Helena’s face is almost lost behind her shoulder – we just catch her left eye, and her profile, as she looks down towards the miraculous resurrection, while pointing upwards to explain it. Her red cloak flows back to the edge of the circle, held back by a creeping figure in blue, and wraps around her to show a flash of red to the left. The colour is picked up by a cloak on the other side of the gap between her and Lazarus, drawing our attention towards him. The darkness of the forms below the red, and the purity of the shroud around his legs, make his body ring out. Further back we see the quickest sketch of the face of an onlooker – a daub and some detail – and the head of a white horse, with a rather dashing mane spirited out of two or three quick flicks of the brush. A little flash of red in the distance helps to hold the composition together. I love Tiepolo’s facility with paint, and I love his economy of means. And I also love that fact that, because this bozzetto is exhibited in the same room as the finished painting, you can, in true exam style, ‘compare and contrast’.

If the sketch is a mere 50cm across, the finished canvas is 5m: every measurement is ten times longer – or, in terms of the surface area, one hundred times larger. I would love to know if all of the changes were specified by the patrons: ‘Yes, it’s lovely Giambattista, but you can’t see her face. People don’t like it if you can’t see their faces’ – so he repositions her, makes her stand behind the cross, and look down towards Lazarus so she is more visible to us, more majestic, perhaps, but less original and less intriguing. Lazarus is also slightly turned towards us, and his bier pushed further down into the darkness, marginalized. Helena stands on a classical entablature: the story says that a Temple to Venus had been built over the site of the Crucifixion – maybe this represents its destruction. The soldier on horseback is still very present, a witness to the scene, and framing the image on the left-hand side, but the Bishop has been told to be more reverential. He kneels down, and has removed his mitre: it is held by a servant, who also has his crozier, just a little to the right. One of the other crosses lies, unregarded, to the bottom right, and nearby a banner reads SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus – ‘the Senate and People of Rome’. Helena was the wife and mother of Emperors, after all.

The angle of the True Cross has also changed. The upward diagonal leads our eye up to an angel who wasn’t in the bozzetto: the angel with the thurible has been somewhat demoted. The newcomer carries a small plaque saying INRI – Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum – ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’ (POTD 23), an explanation of the ‘crime’ of Jesus which, according to the bible, Pontius Pilate attached to the top of the Cross. It is known as the titulus and is rather important here, as St Helena is supposed to have taken it to Rome. According to tradition, she founded a church called Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Holy Cross in Jerusalem) in about 325AD to house the relics she had brought back from the Holy Land. The church is still there, heavily rebuilt, although rarely visited nowadays. However, some people believe that the titulus is there to this very day. It would still have been an important relic in the 18th Century, and no doubt the Capuchins would have wanted it to be clearly visible – hence its position at the top centre of the painting.

Sadly, the pink clouds of the bozzetto have gone – and with them the poetic, almost nonchalant air that Tiepolo had conjured up. The finished painting has all the majesty of a grand statement, and, when you get close to it, it has the master’s typical bravura brushstrokes – he lays on paint with a freedom and ease that looks like butter icing applied to a firm cake – but it doesn’t have the refreshing spontaneity of the bozzetto. I like both, if I’m honest, as Tiepolo excelled at both ‘modes’ of painting. But I know which one I’d rather hang in my study.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “Day 51 – The True Cross

  1. Thank you! Really profound searching and wonderful description. I have seen the original in Accademia and was really impressed. Now I discovered Tiepolo for me and I am reading a nice book “Tiepolo Pink” You mentioned the pink you love. What I don’t understand is why the eyes of Helena are closing. Almost as bei St. Lucia in the picture “Baptising of St. Lucia” also by Tiepolo…


    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it – and more glad that you have seen the original!
      I’m not sure to what extent Helena’s eyes are really closed – the images I can find aren’t good enough to see – but one reason is that she is looking down, and that often means you see more of the top eyelids – so the eyes look closed. Another reason is to suggest a state of religious ecstasy, which would certainly be the case with St Lucy.


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