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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The magisterial fresco of Saint Christopher by Titian is a powerful example of the Italian High Renaissance art.

Painted by the incomparable Titian at the apex of his powers in 1524, the fresco, which was originally a church commission is now, fittingly for this most Venetian of painters, in the collection of the Palazzo Ducale, in St Mark's Square in Venice. The Venetian School included Tintoretto, Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo Bassano, Sebastiano del Piombo and Paolo Veronese.

This was painted during the period of some of Titian's finest work, as he was putting his own stamp on the Venetian School of the Italian Renaissance. Having successfully broken from the old traditions of Italian art, this is a fine example of his arte moderna, freed from the need for symmetry, Titian's expressive new style, typified by bold and expressive brushwork and a deep understanding of colour is given free rein.

This expression was often at it's most vibrant and exciting when given religious commissions, less constrained than his portraiture, Titian's religious frescoes have an undeniable energy and muscularity, of which this is a prime example. Indeed, the dynamism of the posing of St Christopher with the infant Christ on his shoulders was impressive enough to inspire a similar painting five years later by Lorenzo Lotto A popular subject for painters, none have approached Titian for the sheer masculinity, the very embodiment of muscular Christianity.

Titian's St Christopher is well-muscled, with strongly defined legs well-suited to the patron saint of travellers. Rendered by Titian's brush, St Christopher is a strong man bearing the weight of the world, as he serves Christ by carrying him across a river. Though Titian has taken some liberties with the Biblical description of St Christopher: rather than a man of "fearsome countenance", he becomes a handsome, bearded man, with tousled hair and fine features, his well-defined muscles picked out in detail. Christ is portrayed as a cherubic baby, with chubby arms and legs, in contrast to the tiny adult many contemporaries painted.

The use of colour, a hallmark of Titian's work, is particularly interesting. As he fords a blue river, with a blue sky behind, it would be easy for the central figures to be washed out by all that blue. But subtle delineation of water and sky, the distant shadow of buildings and shoreline serve to break this up, and the colours of the Saint and his passenger are stronger and bolder than their surroundings the richness of the Saint's red cloak and blue tunic mark him out as someone special, and the white of his clothing echoes the whit of the infant Christ's coverings, drawing an explicit link between St Christopher and his divine master.

The loose brushwork of the background was revolutionary at the time, when most strove for hyper-realism in their paintings, Titian foreshadowed later, freer, more expressionistic forms, and in doing so served to highlight the importance of his central figures. Rendered in fine detail, the Saint and Christ gaze at each other, the centre of this moment in the story as they travel across the river together.