Beauty & Truth

Tiepolo’s Witness


In 1786, at age 60 and after a long career as a successful Venetian painter, Giandomenico Tiepolo, also known as Domenico Tiepolo, retired from painting to devote himself to the creation of a series of pen and ink drawings depicting the events of early Christianity. In their 2006 book “Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament,” Adelheid M. Gealt and George Knox assert that Tiepolo’s early Christian cycle is unique in the history of art, “unlike anything that had gone before, or indeed since, both in scale and elaboration.”

Beginning with the story of Joachim and Anna and ending with the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, Tiepolo’s series includes New Testament highlights, as well as scenes rarely focused on in art, such as a drawing entitled “Christ and the Centurion of Capernaum,” inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, in which a centurion beseeches Jesus to heal his sick servant. Jesus offers to go with the centurion to perform this miracle, but the centurion responds, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.”

The next scene in the series shows the servant being healed as the centurionlooks on, having just returned to witness the miraculous reward for his faith, a sequence that demonstrates the cinematic nature of Tiepolo’s cycle and offers a glimpse of his ambition to illustrate the details of early Christianity.

In their research, Gealt and Knox tracked down the many individual works, formerly part of the whole but dispersed over the years to museums, auction houses and private collectors, documenting for the first time 313 of the 314 drawings from the series now known to be in existence. In 2006, The Frick Collection staged an exhibition to coincide with the publication of Gealt and Knox’s research, bringing together 60 of the finest drawings from Tiepolo’s early Christian series.

Now, 16 years later, a single drawing from the series has reappeared at The Frick in an exhibition entitled “The Eveillard Gift,” which features a group of 26 works on paper recently donated to The Frick by Elizabeth and Jean-Marie Eveillard, esteemed collectors and longtime Frick trustees. On display are such varied and celebrated artists as Degas, Goya, Delacroix, Le Brun, Constable and Sargent. The exhibit runs until late February, after which all works from “The Eveillard Gift” will remain a permanent part of The Frick Collection.

Among the works gifted to The Frick is Domenico Tiepolo’s “Christ and the Centurion of Capernaum.” The piece hangs on a side wall in the single room displaying the entirety of “The Eveillard Gift” at The Frick Madison – a Brutalist structure also known as the Breuer Building – just a few blocks up from the old mansion under renovation that usually houses The Frick Collection. A short write-up beside the drawing references Tiepolo’s early Christian series but fails to fully convey the monumental and deeply personal accomplishment of this single work considering its connection to the larger whole. Yet, standing alone, it demonstrates the appeal the individual works of this series have had for collectors over the past two centuries.

The piece is nearly 16 inches wide by 20 inches high, reflecting the vertical and sequential orientation of the series as each piece might be read and then turned like pages of a book. Here, the vertical aspect of the image simply narrows the focus, following the pose of Christ at the center. A Roman battlement rises directly behind Him, looming in the background yet diminished by His presence. A group of Roman soldiers stand to one side and a few Apostles and some townspeople stand on the other side as the centurion kneels in a pleading manner before Christ, who radiates a calm and gracious demeanor as He extends a hand of mercy above the man’s head.

The off-white paper shows through in places, creating bright spots in the sky and on the figures where the sun shines upon them. Tiepolo applied layers of orange-brown wash as he worked the drawing from light to dark, establishing a subtle radiance and adding black chalk at various stages for contrast. An orange-brown fingerprint in the bottom right margin suggests the artist applied the wash not just with a brush but with his hands as well. And the pen and brown ink drawing, with lines that sometimes veer off-course, seems an intentional way to create an active scene, as all figures lean towards Christ with anxious anticipation.

The Roman battlement was a common background for this series, accentuating the theatrical quality of Tiepolo’s storytelling, as though his characters are on the set of a staged production. The dog in the foreground was also a common addition to these scenes, reflecting Tiepolo’s inclination to weave ordinary aspects of life into sacred art.

After beginning this elaborate series of drawings, Tiepolo never returned to painting and went on to create two other cycles of drawings in the final 18 years of his life. In addition to his early Christian cycle, he did a series on Venetian daily life and a series on Punchinello, a clown figure from Italian comedy popular with children but a subject that also provided opportunity for social commentary by poking fun at pretensions of the time.

Gealt and Knox speculate that Tiepolo may have worked on his early Christian series until his death in 1804, implying that the creation of his three major cycles of drawings overlapped. His Christian series eclipsed the other two in size and scale, demonstrating what Gealt and Knox describe as his “special passion for sacred narrative.” The scholars also note that his early Christian series was not a commission, leading to the probability that the project was inspired by personal piety and fascination with the subject matter.

Domenico Tiepolo was the son of Giambattista Tiepolo, widely considered the most important painter of 18th-century Italy. Apprenticed to his father in his youth, Domenico’s career was launched at age 20 when he received a commission to paint the Stations of the Cross at the Church of San Polo in Venice. It was the first devotional cycle of its kind to ever appear in Venice, and Gealt and Knox surmise the experience would have planted a seed of “interest in biblical serial narrative.”

As chief assistant to his father, Domenico traveled extensively to collaborate on the creation of grandiose fresco scenes, as the work of Giambattista was highly sought after throughout Europe. Yet, amid this loyal service to his father, Domenico cultivated his own style that eschewed the grandiose in favor of, as Linda Wolk-Simon from The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, “poignant and touching aspects of the human condition.”

With his early Christian cycle, Tiepolo returned to the theme of his first commission with a biblical serial narrative of epic proportions, and he did so at the height of his abilities and in a culminating moment of his artistic style. Taken as a whole, the series reveals his ability to weave dramatic interactions into a captivating presentation that gives witness to his devotion as he draws the humanity out of each story and links those stories together in a grand profession of faith.

But as Tiepolo’s “Christ and the Centurion” now stands alone, the artist’s witness is isolated to this one incident. It is a scene of dynamic interaction, where multiple characters join in bearing witness to the moment. The Apostles look on intently, evidencing their desire to learn from Christ and to understand His power. The centurion’s faith inspires the soldiers to stand passively by, awaiting a miracle. The two young attendants demonstrate the spontaneous nature of the Centurion’s actions as they scramble to retrieve gear he’s dropped to the ground. One of those attendants looks to Christ, joining the centurion’s plea with an innocence that prompts him to gaze upward in adoration.

The centurion does not even look at Christ but instead bows his head and extends his arms in an excited and desperate state of worship, giving witness to the humility he knows is owed the Son of God. And Christ bears witness to His identity, affirming the centurion’s faith and the faith of all who believe the Word of God has the power to heal.