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Botticelli’s portrait of Jesus expected to sell at auction for over $40 million

The Man of Sorrow

ISAAC LAWRENCE | AFP

Zelda Caldwell - published on 10/11/21

The intense gaze of the “Man of Sorrows” presents a very modern, human portrayal of the suffering Christ.

The great Renaissance artist Alessandro Botticelli’s portrait of a suffering Jesus will be sold by Sotheby’s auction house in January, and is expected to fetch more than $40 million.

“The Man of Sorrows” is one of the last of Botticelli’s great works held in private hands. Executed at the end of his career, in the late 15th to early 16th century, the painting is considered a masterpiece. It conveys Christ’s dual nature: angels bearing the instruments of the Passion form a halo around Jesus’ head pointing to his divinity, while his intense gaze conveys his humanity in a most affecting way.

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A spiritual rebirth for the artist

Botticelli completed the painting at a time when he was under the influence of the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, who crusaded against decadence and debauchery in Florentine society and in the Church. 

Savonarola’s condemnation of what he saw as “profane” art led Botticelli, known for his great secular masterpieces “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus,” to burn some of his paintings and abandon painting for several years. His “Man of Sorrows” represents a new, late style for Botticelli, one Sotheby’s notes is “characterized by Christian symbolism and visionary spirituality.”

Christopher Apostle, Sotheby’s Head of Old Master Paintings in New York, said of the painting: 

“During the final decade of his life, Botticelli’s output was markedly different from his earlier career, which is often characterized as the epitome of Renaissance ideals of humanism and beauty. ‘The Man of Sorrows’ is a remarkably realistic portrayal of Christ symbolizing his suffering and death, but with an astounding degree of humanity that is the hallmark of Botticelli’s portraiture, and showcases Christ’s divinity with a stunning psychological depth.”

Symbolism in the painting

‘The Man of Sorrows’ has the very modern appearance of portraiture, but is rich in traditional Christian symbolism.

Christ’s wounds: Christ is shown with three wounds, to his hands and to his right side.

Angels and the instruments of the Passion: Angels carrying the Arma Christi, or the instruments of the Passion, form a halo around Christ’s head. A close look reveals the ladder used in the Crucifixion; the scourge used to flagellate Christ; the lance with which he was stabbed; the column to which Christ was bound and flogged; the pincers used to draw out the nails; and the sponge soaked in vinegar and fixed to a cane that is offered to Christ before his death.

Cross: A cross is positioned above Christ’s head, symbolizing the Church he founded.

St. Veronica’s veil: A trio of angels holds the veil use by St. Veronica to wipe the sweat off Christ’s brow as he made his way to Calvary.

Where has the painting been?

“The Man of Sorrows” belonged to a famed English opera singer, Adelaide Kemble Sartoris (1814-1879). It was passed down to her great-granddaughter Lady Cunynghame who sold it at auction in 1963 for £10,000 ($28,000). Since then it has remained in the same private collection.

The painting is making its first public appearance in an exhibition in Hong Kong from October 7-11. From there it will travel to Los Angeles, London and Dubai before returning to New York in January to be sold at auction.

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