‘Christos fanciullo’ – a new connection to Leonardo da Vinci

Christo fanciullo (Young Christ), terracotta, Eredi Gallandte collection

This terracotta head of a young man is known as “Christo fanciulllo”. It came to light in 1931 after it was discovered in a convent at Ascoi Piceno. As to the sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci is considered a candidate. His name is linked to a claim made in 1584 by the Italian artist Gian Paolo Lomazzo who wrote: “I have also a little terracotta head of Christ when he was a boy, sculpted by Leonardo Vinci’s own hand…”

However, there is an earlier reference which also links to the terracotta Christo fanciullo (Christ as a young man). It appears in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes. Although its current attribution is c1470, the painting has references which date the work to a later period, probably to sometime in 1482, the year that Van der Goes is said to have died.

The main panel of the Monforte Altarpiece depicts the Adoration of the Magi. Like Bottcelli’s Uffizi version it has underlying narratives and picks up on Botticelli’s references to Leonardo, his pointers to other artists and the assasination of Giuliano de’ Medici. Hugo is depicted in the Botticelli altarpiece and returns the compliment by featuring Botticelli in the Monforte painting.

A section of the Monforter Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes

The head sculpted by Leonardo or even of the artist as a young man, can be matched with the kneeling figure, whose left hand supports a golden chalice.

The Van der Goes painting is another work that assigns multiple identities to most of the figures. Hugo’s influence for this was likely Jan van Eyck who did the same – four for each figure – in the Just Judges panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

At surface level the golden-haired figure is presented as a servant to the second magus in the group. At another level he represents Maximilian I, Archduke of Austria, and son of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. A third identity is Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia.

A fourth identity is Leonardo da Vinci, and in his role as an artist, he is positioned receiving a golden chalice from the dying Hugo van der Goes, symbolising a rite of passage. This can be interpreted in more than one way. The most obvious is Leonardo leaving Florence to start a new chapter in his life and career at the Milanese court. Next to the kneeling Leonardo is the figure of Ludovic Sforza, Regent of Milan, known as Il Moro – the Moor – because of his dark complexion, and who Leonardo served as court artist from 1482 until 1499.

The figure also represents St Augustine of Hippo, one of the four Doctors of the Church depicted in the painting. A third identity for this figure is Michael Szilágyi, uncle and guardian (regent of Hungary) to the young king Matthias. The regency role is matched to the identity of Ludovic Sforza, uncle and guardian to the young duke of Milan, the boy holding the sceptre and portrayed at suface level as a servant to the third magus. When the figure is identified as St Augustine, then the boy is recognised as his son Adeodatus who died in adolesence.

The rite of passage theme also connects to Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi and to one of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel which shows Moses commissioning Joshua to lead the Isralites. The Testimony and Death of Moses was the last fresco completed in the series depicting the lives of Moses and Jesus. It was probably finished in 1483 and is attributed to Luca Signorelli and Bartolomea Gatta.

A section of the Testimony and Death of Moses, fresco, Sistine Chapel

Joshua, the man shown kneeling in front of the ageing Moses, is represented by Leonardo da Vinci. The man standing immediately behind him is presented as his father Piero da Vinci, while Moses is represented by Leonardo’s grandfather and guardian, Antonio da Vinci.

Van der Goes repeats a similar motif in his painting, the bearded magus handing down the chalice to the young man kneeling alongside. While there is far more depth of meaning and significance in this motif and the composition of figures, the purpose of this presentation is to link Leonardo to the painting and back to the terracotta head.

Botticelli’s Uffizi Adoration also shows a similar hand-over composition where Leonardo is depicted stooping with his right hand over the left hand of the man wearing a black coat, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s assassinated brother Giuliano. Notice also the handing over of the chalice to Lorenzo wearing the white gown by his father Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici.

A section of the Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi gallery

So now we have three paintings with symbolism representing a rite of passage, a passing over, of life to death to new life, that includes Leonardo da Vinci.

Christ as a Young Man came of age around the time he was twelve years old. Luke’s Gospel mentions “the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom.” For Maximillian I the rite of passage at a young age was at 18 when he married Mary of Burgundy. Matthias Corvinius was just 14 when elected king of Hungary. Leonardo was also 14 years old when his family moved to Florence and he was placed as an apprentice in Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio.

So in age representation the head of “Christ as a Young Man” can be applied to all three identities. Van der Goes, it appears, had sight of the terracotta head, made a drawing or drawings of it, and included it in his painting to link Leonardo to the Botticelli and Signorelli/Gatta fresco. This would also suggest that Hugo van der Goes had sight of the relevant artworks both in Florence and Rome.

Professor Martin Kemp, a leading authority on the life and works of Leonardo wrote:

“Of the exant sculptures assigned to him [Leonardo] on grounds of style, none has decisively entered the accepted canon. Given the unlikelihood of any existing sculpture ever proving to be incontestably by Leonardo on the grounds of documentation and cast-iron provenance, any attribution must necessarily rest on less secure foundation of comparisons with his works in other media and with related sculpture of masters with whom he was closely associated, especially Verrocchio and Rustici.”

(‘Cristo Fanciullo’, Achademia Leonardi Vinci, IV, 1991, PP. 171-6)

Included in professor Kemp’s paper is a profile image (right) of the sculpture. The copy I have doesn’t show much detail but it is the profile itself that is of interest. When flipped, rotated and simply superimposed over the profile in the Van der Goes painting, the fit is an impressive match. Couple this with the deliberate references and connections Van der Goes has made to Leonardo in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi and the Sistine Chapel fresco, it would be reasonable to suggest that the “Christos fanciullo” head is the model for Hugo van der Goes adopted for the head of the kneeling servant in the Monforte Altarpiece.

Monforte Altrapiece… Leonardo profile superimposed with profile of Christos Fanciullo

The art of homage

In earlier posts I revealed how the hands of four of the disciples sat alongside Jesus in The Last Supper painting by Dieric Bouts, represent the emblems of four colleges associated with the Old Louvain University.

Mention was also made that some of the disciples represent artists, Jan van Eyck being one of them. Another is Hugo van der Goes, portrayed as Judas. It begs the question, why would Dieric Bouts have chosen Van der Goes for the role of the disciple who ‘sold out’ on Jesus?

Following the death of Dieric Bouts in 1475, Hugo van der Goes went on to produce the Monforte Altarpiece. The surviving panel, Adoration of the Magi, references elements and themes from The Last Supper panel produced by Bouts; in particular, the four emblems associated with the Old University of Leuven: the Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar (pig), as shown below.

The Old University of Louven and emblems of its four colleges represented in the Adoration of the Magi (Hugo van der Goes) and the Last Supper (Dieric Bouts).
The Castle, the Falcon, the Lily, and the Boar.

In light of the Epiphany

The Monforte Altarpiece (Adoration of the Magi) by Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie

The Monforte Altarpiece is an oil on oak panel painting of the Adoration of the Magi by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes. The altarpiece was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost.

The principal narrative is pilgrimage and the search for God, reflecting not just the journey made by the Magi but also that of the artist in his later years, accompanied by an assortment of other pilgrims, painters and priests who impacted on his life in some way

Hugo carefully crafts a composition of several themes, weaving and skilfully blending narratives to produce a telling masterpiece of iconography.

from Flanders to Galicia…

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. “Where is the infant king of the Jews?” they asked. “We saw his star as it rose and we have come to do him homage.” Matthew 2 : 2

The painting takes its name from Monforte de Lemos, in northern Spain, where it was housed in the town’s College of Our Lady of Antigua. It was sold to the State Museum of Berlin in 1913 to raise funds to extend the college facilities. The site previously served as a university and seminary founded by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro (1523-1600) towards the end of the 16th century. He was a great grandson of the Ist Count of Lemos Pedro Alvarez Osario (†1483).

Iconography evidence reveals the painting was commissioned specifically as an altarpiece for a church or chapel located in Montforte de Lemos, most likely the Dominican monastery of San Vincento do Pino adjacent to the Castle of the Counts, and probably to commemorate Beatriz Enriquez de Castella (1398-1455), wife of the first Count of Lemos. The commission also coincided with the rebuild of the castle after it was damaged during the Great Irmandiño War (1467-1469). A fire later damaged the monastery and this was rebuilt during the 16th century. It may have been at this point that the painting was moved to another location, possibly the Convent of Santa Clara in Monforte Lemos, founded in 1622  by Caterina de la Cerda y Sandoval following the death of her husband Pedro Fernández de Castro (1576-1622) and VII Count of Monforte. In 1633 Caterina professed as a Poor Clare, taking the name Caterina Conception as the convent was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. 

Hugo’s painting was eventually placed in the chapel of the college of Our Lady of Antigua, possibly as a gift from its founder Cardinal Rodrigo de Catsro who may have inherited the artwork via his family connection to the 1st Count of Monforte de Lemos. A copy of the work has replaced the original now kept in the Gemäldergalerie, Berlin.

time moves on…

As to when the painting was completed, art historians generally date the work c1470, although Till-Holger Borchert places it between 1473-1477. However, there are historic narratives in the painting for it to be attributed thereafter, even as late as 1482, the year put at Hugo’s death. If Hugo did die that year then it is feasible the Montforte Altarpiece was one of his last paintings. Besides the historic references supporting this hypothesis are three figures in the scene portraying Hugo as “close to death”.

the artist

Not a lot is known about the life of Hugo van der Goes. There is no certainty about his birthdate or when he died exactly. It is assumed he was born in Ghent around 1440 and died in 1482 at Auderghem near Brussels. Sometime after 1475 Hugo entered cloistered life as a lay brother but continued to paint. It was later claimed by Gaspar Ofhuys, a monk serving with Hugo in the Roode Klooster, that the artist suffered with a psychological illness and on one occasion attempted to self-harm. Incidents surrounding this traumatic episode late in Hugo’s life are alluded to in the painting, supporting Ofhuys’ account later chronicled around 1510.

missing parts…

The Monforte Altarpiece had two wing panels attached that are lost, and the main centre panel was cut down in size at some time in its history. However, there is a small-size copy of the original centre section (right) housed at the Museo Baroffio in Varese, Italy. Although some elements have been altered the replica does complete the picture, so to speak, and provides further information about the structure of the building in which the scene is set. The work is attributed to “a follower of Hugo van der Goes” and dated at the end of the 15th century.

temples and towers…

The ruined building is a standard backdrop for Nativity and Adoration scenes. It represents the ruined Temple of Solomon. The grey stone section behind the fence is the Second Temple (also destroyed), while the newborn infant Jesus signifies the sanctuary that was destroyed and raised up again in three days – his death and resurrection (John 2 : 19). The golden-colour building at the rear represents the rebuild of the Monforte castle and probably its monastery wing damaged during the Irmandiño War.
The castle’s main tower – which still survives – is known as the Torre dl Homenaje, the Homage Tower, which the local people were made to rebuild after the uprising and then swear allegiance and do homage to the 1st Count of of Monforte de Lemos. Hence the association with the scene based on the biblical passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2 : 12) when three men from the East made their way to Bethlehem seeking the infant king of the Jews and to do him homage.

That the scene is linked to the Monforte Tower of Homage is borne out by Hugo in the way he cleverly combines a group of figures to refer to the coat of arms of the 1st Count, alongside those of his wife, that were set into the rebuilt tower in 1480. One of the titles attributed to the Virgin Mary is Tower of David. Stonemasons marks, including the Seal of Solomon, are also inscribed on the tower.

More on this and other levels of identities in a future post.