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Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Head of Christ

Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Head of Christ, c. 1506, oil on poplar panel, 41.9 × 30.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), an Expanded Renaissance Initiative video speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy music) - [Lauren] We're in the Metropolitan Museum looking at a "Head of Christ" painted by the artist, Fernando Yanez de la Almedina. - [Beth] Almedina is such an important Spanish artist at the beginning of the 16th century. - [Lauren] One of the reasons that he's so important is that he is a part of this wave of artists who begin to display more influences from the Italian peninsula. We know that he spent time in Italy, in Florence, working with Leonardo da Vinci. - [Beth] And he may have even followed Leonardo to northern Italy when Leonardo moved from Florence to Milan. - [Lauren] While him going north with Leonardo is speculative, we do know that he was working with Leonardo and that he then returns to Spain in the year 1506, and that's right around the time that this painting was produced. - [Beth] Even if you didn't tell me that this artist worked with Leonardo, I would have known that because of the way that the figure slowly emerges out of the darkness, that use of sfumato, that haziness that softens the outlines of forms and creates an atmospheric effect. - [Lauren] This painting is beautiful. It's also odd in a certain way, particularly the subject matter. We have here a bust-length depiction of Jesus. But normally when we see him bust-length or half-length, it's showing him as the Salvator Mundi or the Savior of the World, showing him as the Man of Sorrows where his face is contorted in suffering. Or we see him on the veil of Veronica. We see no indication that this painting is any one of those subjects. - [Beth] But it's clearly drawing on that tradition of showing us a very close up portrait-like image of Jesus. These traditions that it draws on are longstanding. It probably is closest to paintings showing Christ's face on the veil of Veronica. The legend is that gave Veronica gave Christ a cloth to wipe his face while he was on his way to the crucifixion and his face was miraculously imprinted on that cloth, which became a very important relic in Rome And paintings showing the face of Christ on Veronica's cloth were very popular. - [Lauren] And so why this painting is hard to identify is we don't see any of the other attributes that we a typically associate with the Man of Sorrows or Jesus as the Savior of the World. We don't see a crown of thorns, we don't see any blood in fact. We don't see the edges of the veil. We don't see Christ making a gesture of blessing. What we're really seeing is a bust-length image of Jesus with a halo around his head. - [Beth] One of the things that tells us that this is Jesus, that this is Christ is the halo but I think even without that halo, despite it's naturalism we would know that we weren't just looking at an ordinary portrait. - [Lauren] Jesus has long hair that curls at the end. He has this fabulous beard that is split in the center. He almost looks like he's looking behind us but he's not weeping, he's not expressing a great deal of emotion and yet, I'm so captivated by the eyes. - [Beth] The light on his face, which is coming from the left, draws us to his nose and his eyes. An almost a welling up of tears perhaps, in his eyes. There is a sadness. If we look at images of the Salvator Mundi, the Savior of the World, Christ is blessing us. If we look at the Man of Sorrows, we see signs of Christ's suffering, but here, there's neither that emphasis on blessing nor that emphasis on his suffering, it's a confrontation with the deep humanity of Christ. - [Lauren] Something that I love about Yanez is the very subtle modeling of Christ's face. Look at the neck, you get these darker shadows if we're looking at the painting on the back right, but then you can see the delicacy of his collar bone. We even see the tendons on the neck, very subtle there. The use of sfumato is just beautiful here. - [Beth] And yet, there are also passages that remind me of northern European painting. If we look at the gold embroidery below his neck, that looks like it's right out of Jan van Eyck or Hugo van der Goes or Rogier van der Weyden, that northern Renaissance tradition and it reminds us that in Spain, a lot of these influences come together. I find myself thinking about the way that Christ was fully human and fully divine at the same time. - [Lauren] And when we think about the function of this painting, to me that makes sense. We don't know exactly who owned this painting or where it was originally, but most likely this was a painting for private devotion and the way that Yanez painted it cultivates that type of close relationship to an artwork that is a portal to the divine.