Tradition and Invention: Lorenzo Lotto’s Christ Of the Vine

Predictions of an impending ecological disaster and an alarming increase of Protestant sympathies in northern Italy had prompted members of the Suardi family, in the early years of the 16th century, to build a chapel on their estate. A simple ecclesial edifice was erected according to a charming rustic plan prevalent in provincial Italian architecture of the time. Soon after construction was completed, the apse was decorated by a painter from a near-by town, but the walls and ceiling remained whitewashed, devoid of any religious or decorative imagery. In the early 1520’s, members of the Suardi family started to think that completing the painting was a becoming a pressing matter. They understood the decoration of the interior to be a significant act of piety and a reliable prayer of petition to avert personal and community misfortunes. When Lorenzo Lotto received the commission from Giovan Battista and Maffeo Suardi, he created an inspired iconographic program for the ceiling and the walls of this small chapel. At the heart of Lotto’s remarkable plan is the figure of Christ of the Vine, one of the most striking representations of Christ ever painted.

The chapel is dedicated to two holy women: St. Barbara and St. Brigid. Both are ancient Christian saints. Doubtless, this choice reflects Suardis’ desire to establish a direct link to early Christianity. Lotto took Suardi’s choice of patron saints seriously. The frescos covering the walls in the nave represent lives of St. Barbara and St. Brigid respectively. The north wall which a visitor would have been faced with when entering the chapel, features scenes from the life of St. Barbara. The south wall features St. Brigid. The chronological representations of the lives of the saints against an architectural background, interspersed with scenes of contemporary life is already impressive enough. But Lotto elevated this fresco project to another level altogether when he introduced a monumental figure of Christ right in the center of the Life of St. Barbara cycle. Painted in a later Renaissance style, Christ is represented as dynamic and alive but also profoundly mystical figure with fingers that extend as living vines, growing upwards toward the ceiling and framing half-figures of holy women and several important holy men in the upper register of the nave. Overall, the program for the entire chapel is decisively developed around the figure of Christ the Vine and the holy women.

The iconography of Christ the Vine was not truly present in the West before Lotto paints the image in 1524. Although the excerpt referring to Christ as Vine is sourced from the Gospel of John, an aesthetic and visual representation of this portion of the Gospel was not accomplished until the late 15th century and that in the East, by the Orthodox. So how come Lotto conceptualized and painted Jesus the way he did? It is a well-documented fact that Lotto was exceptionally conversant in art history and familiar with all major painters practicing in Venice and other important Italian centers. Venice had strong ties with Greece and with artists working in the Byzantine style – the maniera greca. It is very possible that Lotto saw and studied sketches or even icons of Christ the Vine as developed by Angelos Akotantos who invented the Eastern representation around 1450. Study of Akotantos icons of Christ the Vine (and there are several iterations of this image by the artist), shows parallels between his concept and Lotto’s idea. It is common knowledge that Akotantos derived his image from the icons of the Tree of Jesse. Lotto’s image is obviously Western and very site specific, visually it is less tied up with the Tree of Jesse. Lotto pushed portraits of the saints up high (rather than around Christ). Another important difference is certainly the representation of Christ in movement, and in graceful soft contrapposto posture versus the more rigid and hieratic representation used by Akotantos. (ikon by Akotantos shown below) Nonetheless, the concept and vines encircling the saints used by both artists resemble one another.

As to the reason why the vine becomes the leitmotif for the chapel, Lotto probably worked with this specific Gospel allusion, because it was so profusely used in the environment of his time to counter Protestant claims – it was a word on the streets, so to speak. Lotto might have thought use of the vine theme would also be sure to please his patrons who were known for their fidelity to the Church and anti-Protestant sentiments; it is also possible that Suardis themselves suggested that Lotto use vines to decorate the chapel. Certainly, they agreed that Christ the Vine will be the visual centerpiece of the frescos. (Various scenes and details from the Suardi frescos below)

Lotto also used the pitched wooden ceiling to continue the vine theme so that the entire space becomes encircles by the one True Vine – the Christ. The ceiling is painted in bright blue of the high summer sky with playful putti and decorative painted cartouches featuring Biblical texts referring to vines and Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is notable that the images in the medallions formed by the vines are saints and Doctors of the Church, St. Jerome and St. Ambrose; and the other saints pictured there are Saint Apollonia, Margaret of Antioch with St. Lucy, St. Ursula, St. Barbara with St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Mary Magdalene with St. Catherine of Siena, Our Lady with two attendant angels, St. John the Baptist, Ss Peter and Paul, St. Alexander of Bergamo with Ss Stephen and Sebastian, St. Dominic with St. Augustine of Hippo and finally St. Francis of Assisi. The wall opposite shows a continuous trompe-l'œil wall with round openings, from which appear prophets and sibyls: David, the Erythraean Sibyl, Isaiah, the Samian Sibyl, Jeremiah, the Delphic Sibyl, Ezekiel, the Cimmerian Sibyl, Micah and the Hellespontine Sibyl, each with a name label above them. A combination of pagan and Christian, or sacred and profane prophetic figures is not atypical and often found in literature and art of the Renaissance. Certainly, Dante’s literary work would have been one of the major sources for this practice.

When Lotto was commissioned to produce the Suardi frescos in the early 1520’s, he was in his mid-forties, already a mature and acclaimed artist working primarily in province areas of northern Italy. He originally studied in Venice but it is not known with whom or for how long. Lotto’s works show influence of the great naturalist Giorgione, masters Bellini and Titian, Raphael, Durer and Holbein. Yet, the Christ of the Vine remains a singular image that can be credited to both creative boldness and attention to traditional iconographic practice in religious art. Lotto turns what could have been an insignificant commission into a remarkable piece of work that alters and expands the way we can understand how new iconography can be developed by artists. In our day, Suradi chapel is still open to visitors who wish to tour the estate and see Lotto’s beautiful Christ the Vine.

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