“And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock, and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre.” Mark 15:46 King James Bible
By 1753 a Spanish branch of a French royal house had presided over the southern Italian Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) for over a century. That year, the Bourbon monarch was known locally as Carlo di Borbone- Charles Bourbon. He was exceptional to his Spanish Bourbon forebears in that he chose not to rule from a distance, but to govern within Naples (1734-59); in which time he is said to have taken an active interest in developing local artistic styles, after a substantial period in which foreign rule had preferred international tastes to local Neapolitan approaches. Giuseppe Sanmartino was a Neapolitan sculptor who became famous during Carlo di Borbone’s fresh Bourbon ambience.
Francois Souchal has perceived the Rococo period in art history as beginning in France roughly towards the end of the reign of Louis XIV (1715). Waldemar Januszczak has compared the preceding Baroque period to a bulbous, organic, uncut pearl and the subsequent Rococo to an entire seabed. The Rococo epoch is associated with Europe’s eighteenth century cultural emergence from a seventeenth century riddled with conflict, into a period of fanciful, frivolous and decorative approaches in the art of certain European courts and churches; frequently possessed of a gaudy opulence that would become implacably interrogated by mid-eighteenth century Neo-Classicism, and abruptly devalued by the incoming late eighteenth century age of revolutions.
Giuseppe Sanmartino’s sculpture, Cristo Velato or Veiled Christ with Symbols of the Passion (1753), doesn’t seem to be nearly Rococo enough if one’s understanding of the period is Fragonard’s Swing, Falconet’s Amour Menacant or an afternoon at the Wallace Collection, but Souchal offers the view that Rococo was arguably “the last great sacred art of the Western world.” It seems a reasonable proposition if we track artworks attributed to Sanmartino; for the most part he appears to have favoured sculptures of saints, angels and religious allegories, appropriately located in Neapolitan churches; yet, even so, his Veiled Christ seems exceptional in his oeuvre.
Thomas D Albright has observed that veiled figures constituted a significant sculptural genre in the eighteenth century; Souchal has added that the genre furnished sculptors with an opportunity to demonstrate their prowess. More specifically, Sanmartino was employed by Raimondo di Sangro the patron of Chapel Sansevero- a Neapolitan Baroque site infamous for its art curiosities– to fulfill the commission of Antonio Corradini, a sculptor renowned for his veiled figures. The setting for Cristo Velato already hosted Corradini’s allegorical interpretation of Modesty (1750): a voluptuous female figure, veiled from head to toe, leaning in a statuesque contrapposto against an inscribed stele, protecting her modesty with a garland of roses.
Modesty contrasts sharply with Cristo Velato. She stands upright, lively, dynamic and active. Christo Velato is recumbent, lifeless, frail and passive. The selection of white Carrara Statuario marble has been praised for its sheen, soft workability and illusion of deep translucence, and it gives Sanmartino’s life-size figure a palpable presence. The diaphanous transparency of the shroud is masterful. It sometimes resembles the movement of poured slick across a body, appearing to melt and dissolve into the shadow of the creases; even as a suggestion of gauziness defines the figure of the slain saviour, like a wet sheet with transparency of cellophane. Knees, toes, shoulders, chest and face stretch the fabric where they connect with it. There is a variety of current, course and rhythm in the drapery; it folds, twists, creases and appears to respond to gravity, air and moisture. The lifelessness of the body and its response to the descriptive shroud lend the figure a suspicion of apparition in a manner that is exceptional to the more dynamically posed figures in the veiled statuary tradition.
M. G. Van Rensselaer, Rococo, The Art Journal (1875-1887), New Series, Vol. 5 (1879), pp. 293-298
Giuseppe Sanmartino, (1720-1793), Elio Catello, review by: Donald Garstang, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 147, No. 1233, Sculpture (Dec., 2005), pp. 832-833
Francois Souchal, Rococo, in Georges Duby and Jean-Luc Daval (eds), Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, Taschen, 2010 edition
Thomas D. Albright, The Veiled Christ of Cappella Sansevero: On Art, Vision and Reality, 2013 International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology