It was in 1519, the very year in which a relic from Christ’s crown of thorns miraculously bloomed at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, that Christ Carrying the Cross first made its way into the church of San Rocco. Shortly after the work was installed behind the altar there—where it was topped by a lunette depicting God the Father and angels bearing instruments of the Passion—it began to work miracles. Or at least that is what was said at the time.
Christ Carrying the Cross is, from a Venetian perspective, the most celebrated work in the NCMA exhibition Glory of Venice. The San Rocco Christ has vexed scholars for centuries: its origin is unknown; its authorship is disputed and could plausibly be the work of either Titian or Giorgione.
Top: Titian and workshop, Eternal Father and Angels, 1519–20, oil on panel, 22 x 45 1/4 in., Scuola Grande Arciconfra ternita di San Rocco, Venice, Italy
Bottom: Attributed to Giorgione, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1506–7, oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 35 3/4 in., Scuola Grande Arciconfra ternita di San Rocco, Venice, Italy
Perhaps even more intriguing is the San Rocco Christ’s cult history. Rumors of its miraculous agency were recorded by Venetian diarist Marin Sanudo in 1520: the painting had “made and was making many miracles” and as a result was also attracting crowds and donations. In fact records tell us that by 1521, a glut of votive offerings had begun to clutter the sanctuary where the painting hung. In response a group of enterprising administrators affiliated with the adjacent confraternity (a lay religious society) which owned the work elected to open a shop where votives left within the sanctuary might be resold to pilgrims and other passersby.
Small print reproductions of the San Rocco Christ that went into circulation in the 1520s and ‘30s helped spread rumors of the painting’s miraculous powers from Venice to elsewhere in Italy. From there incidents of purported miraculous healing seemed to crop up overnight. These miracles, 16th-century Venetians believed, were evidence that Christ Carrying the Cross was vested with divine grace. Yet the San Rocco Christ’s miraculous powers “worked” at a distance—a standard conception of the period. That is, adherents living hundreds of miles away who had never laid eyes on the Scuola, much less the painting, began to report miraculous events of their own.
Attributed to Giorgione, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1506–7, oil on canvas, 27 7/8 x 35 3/4 in., Scuola Grande Arciconfra ternita di San Rocco, Venice, Italy; today scholars continue to puzzle over the identity of the other three figures in the painting.
A selection of the more colorful incidents reported at the time was first recorded around 1523 by Eustachio Celebrino, Friulian historian and polyglot. Art historian Christopher Nygren offers a glimpse in his translation of this treatise, aptly titled The Stupendous and Marvelous Miracles of the Glorious Christ from San Rocco, from the original Italian. Take, for instance, one of Celebrino’s more florid anecdotes:
In Friuli a hideous
And lurid wolf snatched a child
From the cradle (and then took the
Child into the nearby forest).
His mother commended him
To that divine and holy Christ.
Then she found him—what a great thing—
Safe and sound in the shady forest.
O holy and glorious Christ.
Celebrino gives similarly poetic accounts of no less than 17 miracles, none of which occurs on site at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. A man is saved at sea; the son of a merchant is rescued from a terrible fall in Mantua; Antonio is saved from false testimony against him in Padua; a man is saved from a knife attack on the Rialto.
A miracle-working painting in 16th-century Italy, however, was not as unusual as it might sound to modern ears. “Sometimes one could find multiple miraculous images in one place, including in the church of San Rocco,” says Glory of Venice co-curator Lyle Humphrey. “The Giovanni Bellini workshop Annunciation organ shutters in Glory of Venice were painted around 1490 for a church that had just been built with donations left for a miracle-working Virgin and Child. That painting, created in the early 15th century, had begun to attract followers and votive offerings after it was placed in an outdoor shrine by the family who commissioned it. Today the Virgin and Child is housed in the marble church [Santa Maria dei Miracoli] whose construction it helped fund.”