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Christ served by Angels in the Desert

Christ in the Desert served by Angels

Ludovico Carracci (1555-1619). Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Berlin. Ca. 1608-1610.

The Spirit led Jesus in the desert. Jesus fasted for forty days and was then tempted by the Devil. The devil proposed Jesus to turn stones into bread because Jesus was hungry. He tempted Jesus to throw himself down from the parapet of the Temple to see whether angels would save him, and he offered Jesus all the splendours of the world if only Jesus would save himself by his own powers. But Jesus refused all the temptations and made the devil leave him. Then, suddenly, angels appeared and served Jesus. This story is only told in some detail by Matthew. Mark merely mentions that Jesus was in the desert for forty days; John does not mention the fasting in the desert.

Ludovico Carracci made around 1610 a painting on the theme of Jesus served by angels after the temptations in the desert. Carracci was then already an elder man, around fifty-five years old and at the height of his art. The work was made in Bologna, probably for the noble family of the Pepoli. D19 . The work stayed for centuries in bologna, disappeared in the nineteenth century only to re-appear in private property in 1980, after which it was bought by the Berlin Gemäldegalerie. It is a Baroque work, but the Carracci painters were among the founders of a Classicist line of Baroque, which favoured calm dignity instead of overt depiction of emotions in dramatic scenes. ‘Christ in the Desert, served by Angels’ is such a work.

We see Jesus standing in the middle of the picture and several angels around him. The scene is not in a desert at all, but the Bible stories of the temptations may mention a ‘wilderness’, which is not necessarily a desert as we imagine it. A desert can also be a spiritual desert of loneliness and abandonment, and such a place can also be in a forest or a wide plains. We often forget that Jesus’ Palestine was a lusher place that it is in our days. It was a land of forests and green fields, more than current times. And Ludovico Carracci of course was painting for the halls of a Bolognese palazzo, so he had to deliver a picture that also had to be decorative. So he placed Jesus against a landscape of large trees. Such paintings also had to blend with the wall’s decoration. Th pictures could not be so bright for then they would have been a false note in the hall, and contrast too much with the darker tones of the furniture and the vases, clocks or other objects placed in the hall. Still, although Ludovico Carracci situated the scene in the night and painted a dark-toned background of a wood behind Jesus, he used some very bright hues on the angels and on Jesus, so that viewers also had no difficulty to perceive quickly the main figures of the theme.

Ludovico Carracci made a picture in which viewers can discover several smaller scenes. It is a picture with much narrative, literary content. In the left lower corner an angel kneels to a pond and washes dishes. Above that angel, another one brings silver cups and a little higher up angels with opened wings pass to each other a golden bowl and bring golden objects to the table. To the right, an angel in white kneels before Jesus and offers him a plate with water to was his hands. On the other side of Jesus angels respectfully hold white linen to dry his hands. Still another angel pours water on Jesus’ hands. Three angels, shown only in part, hover above the scene, make heavenly music and sing. Yet other angels are in the background, behind the trees and in the skies. There are twelve angels in the principal scene, but Jesus stands oblivious of them.

Jesus stands, lost in gratitude for his heavenly Father and he is in a dignified, humble, dreamy poise. Jesus is absent-minded for what goes on around him, and seems only automatically to offer his hands for the purification of water by the angels. Ludovico Carracci painted Jesus very finely, dressed in a clear-lined robe and cloak. He used harmonious colours on Jesus: a red brick colour for the robe going on to purple, and a dark blue cloak. These are all painted in fine chiaroscuro. Jesus makes a movement with his hands to the right, offering them to the water. Carracci balanced that movement nicely by drawing Jesus’ head and shoulders somewhat to the left. Beneath, Jesus’ right foot is placed a little to the left. The result is a classic, academic image of perfect pictorial balance and of course also of an elegant, delicate poise of relaxed distinction. Jesus is the Romantic hero, the transcendental spiritual being who addresses not the viewer but a being or spirit higher up, the God that is above the frame of the painting and above the viewer. Jesus neither looks at the viewer nor seems to care for the angels, nor does he look at the viewer. The painting is therefore an independent entity. The scene exists on its own, without and despite the viewer. It is the perfect object for a palace hall, non-obtrusive and non-committing, yet interesting enough to catch attention for a long time by its details of figures and fineness of painting. The scene is thus eternal, and not a temporary image caught in a moment by the viewer. The viewer then remains before the painting, unconsciously hoping that Jesus might move, abandon his thoughts and give attention to the angles and to the viewer after all. Ludovico Carracci thus knew very well how to create tension between moment and movement that is quite remarkable.

All the angels move around Jesus and the painter showed them all in various occupations but Jesus stands and is out of the movement. Yet, he is not in the rigid poise of the moment’s anxiety. The fasting of forty days brought awareness not of the world but of the higher world, and Jesus is experiencing this liberation of the soul. He stands in the relaxed attitude that can go on forever. As for the angels, the viewer’s attention moves from one from the other and Ludovico Carracci knew very well how to guide the viewer. In a subtle way the angels look or point at each other and also at the viewer, proposing to engage the viewer in their scene. The angels’ eyes catch the viewer, and then lead him or her away to other places in the painting.

Ludovico Carracci painted Jesus and the angels against a dark background of trees. His robe is red, his cloak blue, so Ludovico needed to use the complementary colour of blue, which is yellow and golden, in the knelt angels. He broke symmetry some by painting the angel on the right of Jesus in white, only to harmonize that hue with the very light and subtle purple robe of the angel that pours water on Jesus’ hands. In the group of angels on the left of the frame, the viewer fins these colours also: blue, yellow to golden and a few white patches also, in an agreeable, harmonious variation of shades. The green colour remains reserved for the background. Ludovico Carracci was a fine master in the choice of colours and he was very much aware too of composition. Jesus and the angels that serve him with the washing of hands are in a pyramid form. Carracci made the angels kneel around Jesus so that they are the basis of the pyramid, a traditional but very strong form of composition. He painted the angels-musicians higher up and balanced these with the horizontal and lower masses, extending to the left, of the table and of the other angels. The group of angels there forms o fluid movement of hands that touch, of eyes that inter-lock, until in this scene the rightmost angel points to the musicians again. All the angels outside the pyramid thus seem to be connected an so isolate the front composition of Jesus and his serving angels in the pyramid structure, strengthening it and separating it from the rest of the picture, so forcing it more upon the first attention of the viewer and creating also a sense of space since the pyramid structure pushes the other scenes to the background.

Ludovico Carracci also introduced symbolism in his work. The washing of the hands is a ritual act of purity performed during Holy Mass. Behind Jesus is a table covered with a white, long cloth, equally a sign of purity and that reminds of the altar of the church, on which Catholic priests serve Mass. On the table stands only a golden cup with the wine of Mass and the bread, used to commemorate the Last Supper. The symbols refer to Christ’s sacrifice and to the institution of Holy Mass. The angels around Jesus remind the viewer that God has to be served.

Jesus is tranquil, lost in thoughts, hardly still in the world. Ludovico Carracci contrasted this feeling, which is easily induced also in the viewer, with a turbulent and menacing background. We see dark trees there in a dense, black forest that seems impenetrable. The scene is set at night and Carracci took great pleasure in showing the silvery moonlight on the clouds and mist that rise in the skies. The artist painted the trees meticulously. Carracci worked long and with dedication at his picture, so that he really honoured a commission form one of the richer families of Bologna.

Ludovico Carracci was the son of a butcher of Bologna and also the cousin of two other famous painters of bologna, Agostino and Annibale Carracci. Together with his cousins he founded in bologna and in 1582 first the ‘Academy of the Desiderosi’ and later, in 1590, the ‘Academy of the Incamminati’. This became the main school of painting of Bologna. The three Carraccis were the prominent painters of Bologna and wit their school also formed famous pupils. Guido Reni and Guercino for instance were students of Ludovico. Ludovico travelled occasionally to Rome and Venice; he was in Rome in 1602 and must have seen some of Caravaggio’s pictures there, as well as the decorations in the Palazzo Farnese on which worked his cousin Annibale. Ludovico stayed mostly in bologna however, and left Rome to his cousins. He directed the academy of Bologna while his cousins were away from the town. The Carracci painters of that generation were among the very first baroque painters, abandoning Mannerism fro a more natural, relaxed manner of positioning figures and they also referred more to nature and to landscapes again. The Carraccis returned to Classical themes but in the era of Catholic Counter-Reformation religious scenes were also common and hardly to be avoided by these artists. They favoured clear scenes with fewer personages, but their styles also much differed, as they were modulated by the different experiences and characters of the painters. One would expect Ludovico’s work rooted in the region of Bologna and thus sweeter and more intimate, whereas Annibale worked in mundane Rome, on frescoes that had to show the wealth and sophistication of the Papal court. Still, after 1600, Ludovico Carracci also made larger pictures, such as this ‘Christ in the Desert’ and he brought more elaboration, fantasy and freedom of lines and drawing in his pictures.

Ludovico Carracci worked slowly, meticulously but stubbornly. Each picture was a child in which he inspired poetry and care. He was a master of tranquil elegance, dedicated much to Catholic thought and to his links with the Church and its revivening of religious feeling to a new demonstration of the greatness of Christ. He painted many religious scenes and also in his ‘Christ in the Desert’ do we find the main characteristics of the new style that his academy proposed: elegance, fine composition, intelligence in symbols, dedication to detail and clear drawing, great skill in chiaroscuro, harmonious and soft hues, and content that was rapidly observed and understood by viewers. Pictures such as ‘Christ in the Desert’ were the images to which groped the Roman and French Classicists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This style also must have influenced Caravaggio, who worked at the same time as the Carraccis. Caravaggio focused on realism of his figures, drew these closer still to the viewer than the Carraccis so that the viewer were more directly and more forcefully implicated in the scenes. He forgot entirely the background that Ludovico Carracci so lovingly worked on. Maybe Ludovico also saw the deeper workings of contrast between light and shadow of Caravaggio, although he already may have taken such emphasis from earlier Venetian painters such as Tintoretto. ‘Christ in the Desert’ is a night scene, but Ludovico Carracci confined the harsher conflicts between light and night to the background.

Ludovico Carracci made a painting on the triumph of faith over the horrors and sadness of the world. A weak point in his painting could be the image of the three, golden musicians to the higher right of Jesus. In Ludovico’s composition this small scene is somewhat of a strange appearance and it is surprisingly linked to the angel lower down, where the scene touches the white wing of the angel. Seen from a distance however, these angles from what almost looks like a golden crown held high above Jesus. The scene then becomes once more a symbol that Ludovico Carracci intended to stress: the symbol of Jesus’ Coronation and his supremacy over heaven and world. Such representations were well in line with Counter-Reformation programs.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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