Giovanni Battista Crespi, called Cerano, Saint James Vanquishing the Moors, c. 1630, oil on canvas, The Suida-Manning Collection.

In the panorama of early 17th century painting, the Milanese school occupies a singular place. In the wake of the catastrophic plague of 1576, the legendary episcopate of Saint Charles Borromeo, and the resulting preoccupation with religious reform, the city’s culture was pervaded by profound skepticism and spiritual intensity. Involving Mannerist formulae and eccentric inventions, but also the progressive elements of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro and then Rubens’s dynamism, the school’s painting tends toward the supernatural: the highly subjective, even the irrational, made real to the senses. 

Of the school’s three leading painters, Cerano was the most complex, visionary, and affecting. His mature style features, and derives its practically existential meaning from, exaggerated contrast between enveloping darkness and celestial light, general monochrome and localized color, thin handling and fluid impasti, pervasive melancholy and momentary ecstasy.  In this late picture, related in theme and principal motif to a monumental canvas of Saint Dominic Defeating the Albigensians at Cremona, these contrasts make the representation of militant faith haunting and universal. 

Happy Year of the Horse!

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