(b. 1585, Orta di Atella, d. 1656, Napoli)
Oil on canvas, 130 x 181 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
In the course of the restoration that followed the National Gallery's acquisition of this painting, the painter's signature came to light. As Stanzione styles himself as "Cavaliere" in the signature, we may date the work to after 1621, the year in which the painter was knighted. Scholars agree in assigning the painting to the earlier phase of Stanzione's career, to somewhere between 1621 and 1626. The painting shows not only the influence of Battistello Caracciolo, but also that of Vouet and Honthorst, foreign masters to whom Stanzione was exposed during his first stay in Rome (1617-20).
In contrast to the prototypes of Ribera and Battistello, Stanzione shows a desire to interpret the theme in a measured, classical sense. He does not exaggerate the tones of tragedy but instead leads the viewer into the circle of most intimate and quiet sentiments; no less intense than a more extroverted and dramatic treatment might have been. The most human and heart-rending gesture of the mother, who bends to kiss the hand of her dead son, sums up the quiet emotionalism of the picture. A poignant detail invented by the artist and not present in any of the models mentioned, this passage is illuminated by a sharp ray of light, and stands out against the dark background to serve as the emotional fulcrum of the entire composition.
Stanzione's use of light is highly sophisticated: it is closer to Ribera than to Battistello, and is enriched with motifs derived from Saraceni. An illustrative passage is the spot of light that grazes the nose of the Virgin, a figure otherwise completely enfolded in shadow. Likewise, the splendid body of Christ is illuminated with consummate pictorial wisdom.