A 500-year-old painting of a man praying to nothing (or at least nothing visible) lingered in storage at the Princeton University Art Museum. Chief Conservator Bart Devolder and I got talking. Something had to be missing. In the hands of some artists, the man’s object of devotion might have been meant to be imagined by the viewer as being somewhere beyond the frame or perhaps assumed to be visualized only in the man’s mind. But this artist—Giovanni Battista Moroni (whom I wrote about in a previous contribution to these pages)—tends to be more literal. His “sacred portraits” (a type he seems to have invented), three of which are known today, present wealthy men and women with hands in prayer and the divine objects of their devotion behind them. These sacred portraits invert the more typical insertion of portraits of donors into larger devotional scenes. In his sacred portraits, Moroni makes the portrait primary, the humans large and close to the viewer; consequently, the sacred slides ever so slightly into the role of backdrop or attribute.
I write this with love for Moroni, but there is something numbingly obvious about these portraits—ostentatious piety, like having the best seats in church. In a double portrait at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, an unidentified man even looks out (somewhat pedantically) at us while pointing to the Virgin and Child floating behind him and his wife, who keeps a strict profile and rigid hands in prayer, not to be distracted. We get it. Or do we?
Many European artists have painted portraits of donors praying. Countless diptychs and triptychs bear praying donors on their wings, hinged in perpetuity to sacred figures painted on accompanying panels. Moroni has the audacity to present divine figures—Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints—and the 16th-century Italians who prayed to them, as if occupying the same space. In a clash of styles, he also depicts the mortal figures with the kind of hold-your-breath extreme lifelikeness, observed to the last wrinkle, for which he is celebrated, while the divine figures are stylized, somewhat vapid, with a tinge of being rote.
At Princeton, Bart got to work. Something lay underneath that plain gray wall behind the praying man, something beneath those tepid clouds. After weeks of painstaking removal of the gray overpaint, which had obviously been applied later and not by Moroni, Bart confirmed it: someone had scrapped the sacred. Perhaps due either to damage or a matter of taste, a previous owner had cut the praying man out of a larger composition that once included divine figures. The removal of overpaint revealed remnants of a sacred body at the left edge: the tip of a shoe, the hem of a blue dress, all atop a cloud. These relics suggest a figural group of the Virgin and Christ Child nearly exactly like that which appears in the Richmond double portrait. It seems that Moroni reused divine figures in his sacred portraits; perhaps his patrons could choose from a menu of them.
Moroni copied that Virgin and Child group from an earlier painting by his teacher, Moretto da Brescia. It turns out that all of the divine figures in these sacred portraits are copies: another Virgin and Child group comes directly from a print by Albrecht Dürer, and a scene of St. John the Baptist Moroni painted also as a monumental altarpiece. While the portraits are so convincing in their individualism—this particular person sat here and looked exactly like this—the divine figures are not. Copied, quoted, borrowed—they are painted in a way that immediately signals that they were not studied from life.
Moroni’s sacred portraits are brilliant. Through the eloquence of style, they distinguish between beings of this earth, seen by human eyes, and those beings that are not of this earth, known by their Renaissance viewers through faith alone. In a game of projection and displacement, in the Richmond painting, the couple does not look directly at the divine. Moroni implies the object of their meditation, which becomes, at the same time, a sacred image for the viewer to contemplate.
The Princeton praying man is not quite ready for public viewing. In what state would he best be understood? It is impossible to revert him to his original condition. Now that the overpaint has been removed to reveal his origins, the lone praying man is no longer alone, those precious faint feet and legs, the cloud bed of the Virgin, offering a vestige of divine comfort. When that previous owner transformed the sacred portrait into a picture of a lone praying man, he or she muted the brilliance of Moroni’s construction. Currently, in its extraordinary hybrid form, it lives somewhere in between, not quite one or the other, ghosts of the sacred and the human haunting this canvas from half a millennium ago.