Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Pilate Washing His Hands, by Luca Giordano (circa 1655-60)

This week, we look at some of the works by one of history’s most prolific painters, Luca Giordano (1634-1705).  Luca was one of the most important painters during the latter 17th Century, but many critics do not know where to place him.  Fabulously popular in his day, his sheer fecundity makes it difficult to fully assess his corpus of work.  (His nickname was Luca Fa PrestoLuke works quickly.)

The son of a painter, Luca Giordano was born in Naples.  Young Giordano was recommended by the viceroy of Naples to the artist Ribera, and the older artist greatly influenced the younger.  Giordano proved to be very facile as an artist, and quickly learned a versatility that enabled him to imitate the styles of other artists.  This gift for prolificacy and imitation has hurt his career somewhat; critics have always been suspicious of artistic abundance.  While Giordano painted many pictures that were not as impressive as his talent would demand, the sheer number of masterworks by his brush is amazing.

Giordano apprenticed in Rome, Parma and Venice, eventually developing a Baroque style.  This involved a mastery of design and composition, a taste for luxury, and a lively sense of color. 

Giordano tried his fortunes in Florence, where he painted worthy frescos and worked with the influential Medici family.  He painted the dome of the Corsini Chapel of the Chiesa del Carmine, and painted the ceiling of the Biblioteca Riccardiana (the Allegory of Divine Wisdom); a man of business as well as art, Giordano incorporated the visages of the Medici family into his works.  Stroking wealthy patrons has always been a key component of the career of any artist looking for a paycheck.

Giordano spent 10 years in Spain at the invitation of Charles II.  Following his father’s death, Giordano returned to Naples in 1702, where he painted for a variety of clients, including the church, the court and the rising merchant class.

Pilate Washing His Hands is one of our favorite works by Giordano.  Painted somewhere around 1655-60, when Giordano was in his mid-20s, it is a smallish picture measuring some 17x26.  It was painted in oil on copper sheet, and can be found in the Prado in Madrid.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea under the emperor Tiberius from AD 26-36.  Though commonly mistaken as the man responsible for the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the gospels tell a more complex and interesting story.

In each of the gospels, Pilate actively seeks to spare Jesus from execution, and only relents to placate the crowd who wants Him dead.  He makes clear in the Biblical accounts that he bares no responsibility for the death of Jesus.

In Matthew, Pilate ceremoniously washes his hands to show that they are clean of His blood.  Mark and Luke indicate that Pilate recognizes Jesus is innocent of conspiring against Rome, and executes him with great reluctance.  In John, Pilate actually asks the Jews to release Jesus from custody.

Giordano’s depiction of the scene is full of drama and subtlety.  The composition itself is fairly static, most of the figures at the same head-level.  The dynamism of the picture is accomplished (amazingly) by following the gaze of the principals.  The two soldier bearing Jesus openly look at Pilate, entreating him for mercy.  The pages at other side of Pilate (one pouring the water with which Pilate will symbolically absolve himself of any guilt), clearly look at Him in frank astonishment.  Pilate, however, is isolated by his gaze – his eye look over the head of Christ, and into the undiscovered future.  Does he see the judgement of history, or his own eventual damnation?  We do not know, but the face of Pilate is painted with more detail, more sensitivity and more … deliberation than that of Christ.

As with the great masters, look for little touches that delineate Giordano’s complete command of the medium.  Note the tiny earring on the ear of the guard in the furry cap, the shadow cast by the details adorning the plated shoulders of the guard, the faint gleam of light caught in the eye of the guard immediately behind Christ.

The two pages, and Pilate himself, wear the garb of the Renaissance and not antiquity, and the armor is surely the creation of Giordano’s imagination, but not a single detail seems out of place, too dramatic, or in any way underdone.

Fascinating, too, is the depiction of Christ.  Much more pale than anyone else in the picture, Christ already seems sickly and near-death.  But the suffering has none of the sadism (or masochism) so often associated with paintings dealing with His trial and crucifixion, and Giordano show admirable restraint.

A fascinating, masterful and psychologically complex work.

More Giordano tomorrow.

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