Paintings | 16th Century | Guido Reni | The Infant Jesus sleeping on the cross | Expertise

76 x 64,5 cm
Oil on canvas
1625 ca.


Artwork profile

The Infant Jesus sleeping on the cross

Guido Reni

The Expertise

1) “Sweetness, Grace and Perfection”. Before this painting I can find no better words than the simple and human ones used by Sandrart to decipher Guido’s insight into beauty, almost as if it was spontaneous or inherent. And which subject does best embody such apparent simplicity of enchantment other than the baby, the putto, or better the fleshy putto, namely what Reni had learned to depict, according to Malvasia, from Ludovico: that is “the way of painting putti in a manner that the superabundant plumpness of the flesh would cover even the most pronounced muscle”. However, in other instances Reni connected such skill of his to the example of Bagnacavallo: “he praised Bagnacavallo for the putti and was proud of having learned from him how to make them so buttery and plump”. And this Infant Jesus appears “buttery” indeed, while sleeping with his head delicately resting on the bent arm; he is laying on a pink robe; the blonde-reddish hair is blown by a gentle breeze that we may almost sense. Nothing can disturb the sweetness of such rest, not even the cross on which the infant is laying, nor the crown of thorns or the thin nails on the foreground, forebodings of a suffering and of a passion alien to the metaphysical yet very human and affectionate tranquillity of the scene. Behind the boy, a shadowy hill slopes gently, while on the right the airy landscape widens up onto an open plane where in the distance a shimmering strip of blue flickers: an outline of a marine scene where two tiny sails stand out – just two brush strokes of white and blue – almost a signature of Guido. The sky is made of layers of colours, applied almost with a spatolato technique, that merge on the left with the dark tones of the shadowy hill. The subject matter of the Infant Jesus laying or sleeping on the cross bears an allusion to the divine love and to the sacrifice of Christ and is inspired by the Song of Songs (V, 2), but together with the Classical model of the sleeping Cupid it must have entered Reni’s repertory quite precociously, already at the beginning of the second decade of the 17th century, the same period in which he painted the small charming angels in Bologna’s Santa Maria dei Servi. A transcendent and melancholic development of the subject of the Infant Jesus reclining, or more often sleeping, with which the painter had repeatedly and frequently busied himself since the beginning of the century, both as a reference to the Virgin and as an isolated figure. This painting – of which the many afterthoughts give a proof of its being the first version – is clearly the prototype, hitherto thought to be lost, of a large series of copies and filiations, starting from the small scale canvas (30 x 23,75 cm), now in Washington, Osuna Gallery, that appears among the new attributions (n. 17 in the catalogue) in Stephen Pepper’s monograph on Reni (English edition of 1984, Italian edition of 1988) and that Pepper places chronologically in the first half of 1614, that is the same period to which belongs the Aurora fresco on the ceiling of Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s Casino in Rome, on grounds of close stylistic analogies between the two works, notwithstanding the huge difference in scale. Compared to this painting, the canvas in Washington appears to have much more contrast and is characterized by an opposition of tones far away from this extraordinary harmonious softness of colours. Here the light isolates before our eyes the Infant, caresses his shapes, emphasizes the pink colour of his complexion imbuing it with the reflection of the robe on which he rests, shapes his volumes and the delicate shady areas. Here the sky becomes a companion of the background with its tones: almost gloomy on the left, it gradually opens to the radiance of the landscape on the right. It is enough to rejoice for the reappearance of a work thought to be lost, fundamental for the development and the evolution of an extremely successful subject in Reni’s and his circle’s following career, a subject that since the 1620s was often repeated by Reni, who also created a version in which the cross and the boy are placed diagonally and another one devoid of the symbols of the Passion. Among the filiations suffice here to mention a painting in the Palatine Gallery of Florence: a wooden panel of 34 x 43 cm (inv. 1890 n. 1358) depicting an Infant Jesus sleeping on the Cross, datable around 1620, once attributed to Barocci and then to Cristoforo Allori, while today considered rather close to Bilivert. Amid the many variations, the sources refer especially to an Infant Jesus sleeping on a skull, in the collection of the last Prince Barberini in Rome, and an “Infant Jesus Our Lord sleeping with the skull of death. Crown of thorns, by the hand of Guido Reni, once belonging to the Duke of Parma”: it is the painting in the Farnese Collection (today housed in Naples, in the National Museum of Capodimonte) attributed to Reni’s workshop (cm. 68 x 82). The “Baby sleeping with the Death and the symbols of the Passion” was displayed in Parma in Palazzo Ducale: Montesquieu, visiting the collection in 1729, mentions it together with a few other works he believed to be of excellent quality. For the whole of the 19th century the work was considered an original. The painting has been restored by Ottorino Nonfarmale and is thus today in an excellent state of preservation. (13th March 2007 - Andrea Emiliani)




2) Reni, after an apprenticeship with the Flemish painter Calvaert, became a follower of the Carracci brothers and a notable testimony of this early period is this painting dated by Andrea Emiliani around the second half of the second decade of the 17th century, more or less at the time when Reni was engaged with the “Chariot of Aurora” for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, one of his utmost masterpieces ever. The Infant Jesus Sleeping is one of those subjects that Reni loved replicating because of the great favour that such themes met in the cultured circle of Roman and Bolognese collectors. Reni had invented a new idea in the painting field, that of combining in the same depiction a sacred subject with a profane one. The Infant Jesus Sleeping is the symbol of the Passion, since he is lying down as he will be on the sudarium and he is portrayed in the meditation posture with the hand pressed over the cheek, conveying a sense deep melancholy that burdens the whole image. Yet, at the same time, the figure is set within a scenery of simple and sublime beauty as if it was that of a boy resting peacefully in a delightful place, without further religious significance. In a painting such as this, Reni was thus reaching that dimension of balance and beauty that will always remain characteristic of his work. There is no doubt that amongst the copies known of this magnificent theme, the one in the Collection is the best from a qualitative point of view and the most important one on the historical side.