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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Masterpieces from Turin 1

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Hans Memling, The Passion, 1470, Galleria Sabauda, Turin

Hans Memling (1430-1446 ca/ 1494)

The Passion

Oil painting on panel


56.7 cm x 92.2 cm

Galleria Sabauda, Turin

The Turin Passion is an exquisite painting by Hans Memling, the best painter of the day in Bruges and commissioned by the manager of the Bruges branch of the Medici bank Tommaso di Folco Portinari.

The painting is a depiction in which the 23 individual scenes from the Passion are combined simultaneously in one scene. It is not only important for the extraordinary composition but also for the rich history behind this painting, that travelled from Bruges to the main important courts in Italy.

Tommaso Portinari was a member of a prominent Florentine family of bankers and merchants.

His father was a Medici branch manager and Tommaso's elder brother Pigello Portinari had managed the branch in Venice for many years and had built up the Milan branch from 1468.

Tommaso Portinari himself followed really young in Bruges his cousin, Bernardo di Giovanni d'Adoardo.

Tommaso was an employee in the Bruges branch of Medici bank for a very long time, more than 25 years, but never rose higher than assistant manager and factor, apparently at the insistence of Cosimo de’ Medici, who did not trust him.

After Cosimo's death, he became general manager and shareholder in the branch at the age of 40, due to his usurpation of power in the spring of 1464 against Angelo Tani.

Tommaso was an ambitious man in Bruges and we can see how he used social positioning and its most significant component at that time, religious endowments, to further his professional career, and how he ultimately came to be fully integrated into local society.

Paintings and portraits are socially really important. The first that Tommaso commissioned in Bruges was the Turin Passion. The relatively small panel still raises a few unsolved questions between the scholars for its destination of use and its date.

Hans Memling, The Passion, left side

To understand the depiction in which the individual scenes from the Passion are combined, we need to start to read the painting from the top left side. All the composition is an imaginary view of Jerusalem where Memling placed as in a big stage all the scenes that took place inside the city and in the landscape the one that took place outside, the light and darkness mark the change of time between day and night.

From the top to the bottom on the left side we can see Jesus entering in Jerusalem, Jesus expelling the merchants from the Temple, Judas betrays Jesus to the High Priests, The Last Supper, Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, Juda’s Kiss and the Arrest of Christ.

In the centre inside the city: Denial of Peter, Christ before Pilate, Flagellation of Christ, second interrogation by Pilate,Crowning with Thorns, Ecce Homo and Making of the Cross.

Hans Memling, The Passion, central part
Hans Memling, The Passion, right side

On the right from the bottom and outside the city’s walls: Carrying of the Cross and Simon of Cyrene bears the cross, Jesus is nailed to the cross, Crucifixion, Descent from the Cross, The Entombment, Resurrection, Christ in Limbo, Meeting with Mary Magdalene: noli me tangere, On the Road to Emmaus and Appearance before the apostles at the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias).

These kinds of paintings usually were intended to be used in private prayers and meditation aimed as “imitatio Christi”. At the same time, it also corresponds to another practice of the day, the tableaux vivants the reacting of the scenes of Christ’s Passion that replaced the Pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

In the Turin Passion we can see in the corners the two patrons on the left side Tommaso Portinari and on the right side his wife Maria Baroncelli, dressed in the fashion of the Burgundy court, ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands, displaying their wealth and social status.

Portinari probably commissioned this painting on the occasion of his wedding in 1470 as Dirk De Vos suggested. Tommaso Portinari had a special relationship to Charles the Bold and his court who he wanted to emulate not just in fashion but also in art.

We can assume that The Passion emulated in its small scale the series of Passion carpets, interwoven with gold thread, that adorned the chapel of the Prinsenhof during the festivities at wedding of Charles the Bold with Margaret of York in July 1468. The Turin Passion panel would therefore imitate and at the same time replace the "portable grandeur" of the picture carpets in the ducal chapel using the qualities of a painting.

Carpet with scenes of the Passion: Carrying the Cross, Crucifixion, Resurrection, 1450-75, Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire, Brussels

Tommaso Portinari probably in the same year commission also the two portraits of the Metropolitan Museum in New York that were assembled in a triptych with a central devotional image of the Virgin and Child.

Hans Memling, Tommaso di Folco Portinari, Maria Portinari, ca 1470,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 1476-77, Portinari commissioned a triptych to Hugo van der Goes Adoration of the Shepherds with angels and Saint Thomas, Saint Anthony, Saint Margaret, Mary Magdalen and the Portinari family.

Hugo van der Goes, Adoration of the Shepherds with angels and Saint Thomas, Saint Anthony, Saint Margaret, Mary Magdalen and the Portinari family, ca.1477-78, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Tommaso Portinari is portrayed with his two sons Antonio and Pigello, and Maria Baroncelli Portinari with her daughter Margherita. The painting probably was commissioned for the family chapel in the parish of St James in Bruges.

Portinari used his position to make very large and extremely risky unsecured loans to Charles the Bold, which were never repaid and cost the bank heavily.

Unsurprisingly, for his good services, Portinari became a favoured counselor to Charles the Bold.

Financial problems with the sale of alum from the joint Papal-Medici alum cartel and bad investments like two galleys that either sank or were captured by privateers, along with the still outstanding bad loans to Charles the Bold, caused the Medici to finally give up on Bruges in 1478, when they unilaterally dissolved the partnership with Portinari.

In great financial difficulties he had been forced to sell jewellery a few months earlier in Rome, and lent money by colleagues to transport the triptych by Van der Goes to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

The painting's arrival in Florence in 1483, having first reached Pisa by sea, was quite an event; the work was perceived to be extraordinarily innovative in the eyes of the Florentine painters, who particularly praised the realistic likeness of the objects, landscape and facial features.

Master of the Bruges Passion Scenes, Christ presented to the People, 1515

There was no mention in the records about the Turin Passion that must still have been located in a local religious establishment in Bruges after Portinari's death as there are some copies of the painting by Bruges painters made around 1515 as Master of the Bruges Passion Scenes.

Probably the panel was placed in the Observants friary, endowed by Portinari, and after the friary was dissolved in 1517, the panel could have found its way to Italy.

Giorgio Vasari mentioned in the first edition of The Lifes 1550 a panel with Passion scenes at Villa Medici at Careggi and in the second edition 1568 the panel was in Florence in the collection of the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici.

The Duke Cosimo I probably around 1570-72, donated the panel to the Pope Pius V.

The Pope elevated him to the rank of Grand Duke of Tuscany, after his support in the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire, as the result of which the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

The painting was considered a prestigious, valuable and desire gift from a Grand Duke to a Pope, and mark the great consideration of the work by Memling after a century of its creation.

Pius V, born Antonio Ghislieri, was from Bosco Marengo (Alessandria, Piedmont) and he sent the panel to the Domenican monastery of the Holy Cross and All Saints in Bosco Marengo that he commissioned in 1566 when he was still bishop and enriched when he became Pope sending the most important artists of the time among them Giorgio Vasari.

the Domenican monastery of the Holy Cross and All Saints in Bosco Marengo, facade
the Domenican monastery of the Holy Cross and All Saints in Bosco Marengo, interior

In 1796, the monastery was sacked by Napoleon's troops, and many of its treasures were removed but not the Turin Passion that was hidden by a monk till the Restoration (1814).

The painting was later donated or bought by the king Vittorio Emanuele I of Savoy, entering in the royal collection.

In 1832 King Charles Albert of Savoy inaugurated the royal gallery at the Palazzo Madama, then Galleria Sabauda in Palazzo dell'Accademia delle Scienze and in 2014 the collection was moved in the new place in the New Wing of the Royal Palace.

The Turin Passion by Memling is one of the most important works in the collection of the Galleria Sabauda.

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