Hidden composition revealed beneath Botticelli’s painting ‘Man of Sorrows’

This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.

Sandro Botticelli’s rediscovered and arresting “Man of Sorrows,” due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s on January 27 — with a guarantee of $40 million — has yet to be studied extensively, as it has been in private hands since the 19th century.

But technical analysis undertaken by the auction house in preparation for the sale has already revealed one unexpected discovery: an intriguing image of a Madonna and Child, buried beneath the paint layers.

Chris Apostle, the senior vice president and director of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s in New York, who has had the opportunity to ponder the picture in depth, believes it to be an abandoned composition of a “Madonna of tenderness” (a type derived from Greek icons), in which the Madonna intimately cradles the head of the baby Christ against her own, cheek to cheek. The facial features, particularly the nose, eyes and laughing mouth, which he identifies as belonging to the Christ Child, are very visible in the infrared image, if rotated upside down.

An infrared image of “Man of Sorrows,” reveals the faint outline of a Madonna and Child underneath. Credit: courtesy Sotheby’s

This head occupies a space beneath the Man of Sorrows’ chest, while what appears to be an eye and an eyebrow, belonging to a female head, peep out from the area near Christ’s proper right hand, according to Sotheby’s. There is also evidence of some white underpainting, possibly in cadmium, in the lower part of the figure. Other visible parts of the abandoned composition include what looks like folds of a mantle, with decorative banding around the shoulder and part of a sleeve, and the Child’s chubby arm is discernible as well.

Some lines in this under-drawing are thicker than others, suggesting that they may have been traced from a standard cartoon, and then gone over in a liquid pigment. But the head of the baby Jesus, Apostle suggested, is a “one-off”: There is no replica in any autograph Botticelli or studio works for what we see here.

The red outline on an upside down image of the painting shows the Madonna and Child underneath.

The red outline on an upside down image of the painting shows the Madonna and Child underneath. Credit: courtesy Sotheby’s

So, is it unusual to find such an under-drawing? Apostle says that he has come across this type of thing before. “Panel was a valuable commodity in the Renaissance,” he explained, so in the case of a discontinued work of art — in this case, a Madonna and Child, a motif that Boticelli and his busy studio regularly turned out — “then one wouldn’t want to throw it away.” And so, it seems, Botticelli took the panel, turned it the other way, and decided to use it for an extraordinary composition, one which reflects the demi-millennial religious angst of Italy at this time. The new work is tentatively dated around 1500, when predictions of the apocalypse and hopes for personal salvation had reached a particular level of intensity.

The poplar panel that Botticelli used was the standard painting support in Renaissance Florence. Sotheby’s technical analysis reveals a fissure down the middle and an old knot in the wood and shows that the panel was “reconfigured at some point in the 20th century,” according to Apostle. It is sandwiched on a modern board, with the original back and front either side of it (“a type of marouflage,” explained Apostle). The paint layers are in “pretty good condition,” he continued though a little chewed up at the edges, and there are additions to the top and bottom of the picture.

The face of the Christ Child (rotated upright for clarity) is visible in the infrared image.

The face of the Christ Child (rotated upright for clarity) is visible in the infrared image. Credit: courtesy Sotheby’s

The infrared images also show that Botticelli made certain adjustments to the composition, according to Sotheby’s analysis. For example, the tip of one finger that probed the gaping wound in Christ’s side is now covered by his robe, and there is a shift in the position of the wound and the profile of the thumb, with the resulting effect that the wound is “down-played” a bit, as Apostle said. There is also evidence that Botticelli altered the length of Christ’s hair, his chin and the placement of some of the crown’s thorns as well as his eyebrows.

In terms of Botticelli’s typical pictorial technique, Apostle said “he has switched it up” here, blending tempera and oil. “It’s very hard without doing samples to say what the binding medium is,” he said. “But the technique seems pretty consistent with what I’d expect to see. We have XRF technology so we can look at, for instance, the cadmium element, and we have a lead map, which shows where the fills and losses are. The pigments include chromium, titanium and so on — all the pigments one would expect to see.”

As with Botticelli’s “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel,” sold last year by Sotheby’s in New York for $92 million, lead white paint is used copiously throughout the composition, with some mixed into the gesso preparatory ground.
"Man of Sorrows" will be auctioned on January 27 at Sotheby's New York.

“Man of Sorrows” will be auctioned on January 27 at Sotheby’s New York. Credit: courtesy Sotheby’s

The tiny cross at the top of the composition has been rendered by scoring lines into the paint surface and then been shifted along (such incisions are also visible in “Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel”). “It would have been way too far to the right,” Apostle said, though the cross and Christ are still positioned asymmetrically. This asymmetry contrasts with a comparative contemporary image, Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” (another anomalous Old Master image, which famously sold for $450 million at Christie’s New York in 2017), where Christ is presented rigidly straight-on, as in the famous “Veil of Veronica” relic of Christ.

“To me what I find touching is that Christ is a little bit off center,” Apostle said. “Botticelli has tilted his head slightly, which is more human.”

At age 55 or older at the time of painting the work, Botticelli would have been in the last decade of his life, Apostle pointed out. “I feel that there is something about this picture that Botticelli is projecting, an understanding that we are all going to die — it has a profound emotional charge,” he said. “If he had represented Christ full on and rigid this would be more like an icon; a little bit more impenetrable.”

Read more stories from The Art Newspaper here.