Sebastiano Filippi (called Bastianino) created the unusual large-format painting The Living Cross around 1565–70 for the Santa Catarina Martire monastery and church in the Italian city of Ferrara. Thanks to extensive restoration work, the altarpiece is once more on display to the public for the first time in over 100 years in a focused special exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie. It is one of just two works by the painter held in Germany.
Bastianino as One of the Most Important Artists During the Time of Duke Alfonso II d’Este
Together with Bastarolo and Scarsellino, Bastianino (“little Sebastian”) was one of the most important artists during the time of Duke Alfonso II d’Este (1559–97). He worked toward the end of an epoch in which Ferrara, ruled by the Este family, was one of the most important cultural and political centres in Europe. Bastianino was born here between 1528 and 1532, the son of a mediocre painter, Camillo Filippi. However, Filippi was a colleague and friend of a number of great masters like Dosso Dossi, Battista Dossi and Benvenuto Tisi (called Garofalo). Stylistically, the younger Filippi dabbled with both the classical and richly imaginative traditions of his homeland, and the colorito and painterly freedom of the neighbouring Venetians, in particular the later Titian. He died in 1602 in Ferrara.
The altarpiece, standing almost three metres tall, was produced in around 1565–70 for the Santa Caterina Martire monastery and church in Ferrara. The iconographically unusual depiction of a cross with arms sprouting from the ends of its cross-beam references an allegory from the Old and New Testament, which Garofalo had depicted in Ferrara: in a fresco in the refectory of the Church of Sant’Andrea and on a canvas for the refectory of the San Bernadino Church.
The figure of Ecclesia is holding a globe in her hand as a symbol of the superiority of the New Testament and its all-encompassing rule. She symbolises the Roman Catholic church and is surrounded by the four symbols of the Evangelists. With her right hand she is guiding water and blood from the divine sacrifice down to the sacraments of the baptism, confession and the Eucharist, in the form of a red stream issuing from Christ’s breast. The scene on the left shows the preaching of Paul at the Areopagus. This serves as a clear reference to the universalism of the church and its evangelising ambitions. Synagoge, the symbol of the Old Testament, is depicted as an old woman wearing a blindfold and riding a donkey. She has been injured by a lance, held by one of the six living arms of the cross. Her sceptre is broken, her crown falling from her head. On the right, we can see the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. Lower down is a Levite, who is receiving a sacrificial lamb at the ark of the covenant. The Devil and a number of old men can be seen peering out of an opening in the ground.
The painting was made after the Council of Trent (1545–63) and is an example of Counter-Reformist propaganda. The message of the picture can be interpreted both as a warning to, and a critique of, the Duke, who maintained good relations with the Jewish community of Ferrara.
The History of the Altarpiece as an Artefact
Following the dissolution of the Santa Catarina Martire cloister in the late 18th century, the altarpiece had an eventful history. Passing through the hands of private collectors in Ferrara, Brescia, Bologna and Vienna, in 1885 the panel ended up in the collection of the Hamburg merchant and consul Eduard Friedrich Weber. Weber’s descendants donated the painting in 1912 to the department for New Testament studies at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (today the Humboldt-Universität) in Berlin.
During the war, the painting was stored in the Berlin Cathedral. Due to the unfavourable climatic conditions there, the poplar panel shrank, causing cracks to form. In addition, many of the paint layers began to flake off, meaning significant sections of the painting were lost. Numerous small sections of missing paint, larger sections that had been painted over long ago, yellowed varnishes and the remains of previous consolidation efforts stymied the overall effect of the work.
Since 2015, the work has been on permanent loan to the Gemäldegalerie where, over the course of a year, it has undergone extensive investigations and restoration work.
A restoration and special exhibition project by the Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung as part of the initiative KUNST AUF LAGER