Rosso Fiorentino, “Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist” (ca. 1520), The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (image courtesy The Morgan Library & Museum)

If you’re in the mood for a little hardcore strangeness, head over to the Morgan Library & Museum and check out Rosso Fiorentino’s “Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist,” an unfinished oil on panel currently on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Holy Family” was made around 1520, roughly the same time that Rosso (1494-1540) painted his monumental “Deposition” (1521), now in the Pinacoteca Comunale of Volterra, Italy — a tangled ballet of grief rendered in boxy, faceted, almost proto-Cubist forms.

These two paintings came before what the art historian John Shearman, in his classic study Mannerism (Penguin, 1967), called Rosso’s “conversion” to that long-debated style:

Perhaps the most individual artist of this group was Rosso; his Mannerism has the intensity of the convert’s, for it represents a marked change of direction after the vivid, direct and brutally expressive works he painted around 1520.

“Brutally expressive” nails it for both pictures, even if that is not a term you would normally associate with a painting of the Holy Family. But Rosso’s take is heated and rough, exacerbated by its unfinished state.

In her New York Times review, Karen Rosenberg quotes Vasari’s biography of the artist:

The composition intrigues, with its combination of passivity (Joseph’s adoring gaze) and aggression (St. John laying a chubby hand on the Madonna’s belly). So do the figures’ unresolved faces: dark pools for eyes, smeary mouths. Vasari explains, “It was Rosso’s custom in his oil sketches to give a sort of savage and desperate air to the faces, after which, in finishing them, he would sweeten the expressions and bring them to a proper form.” In “Holy Family” that sweetness isn’t there yet.

It is illuminating, though, to quote the passage from Vasari in full:

The Director of the Hospital of S. Maria Nuova commissioned him to paint a panel: but when he saw it sketched, having little knowledge of that art, the Saints appeared to him like devils; for it was Rosso’s custom in his oil-sketches to give a sort of savage and desperate air to the faces, after which, in finishing them, he would sweeten the expressions and bring them to a proper form. At this the patron fled from his house and would not have the picture, saying that the painter had cheated him.

The painting that caused the ruckus is “Virgin and Child with Saints John the Baptist, Anthony Abbot, Stephen and Jerome” — the artist’s earliest surviving altarpiece, which has been in the collection of the Uffizi since 1900. Rosso signed a contract to execute the work in 1518, when he was 24 years old.

Even finished, the painting does little to mitigate the qualms of the hospital director, whose name was Leonardo Buonafede. The Madonna is rendered with the kind of rote blandness we see in innumerable second-rate Renaissance paintings, but the four saints, rather than experiencing the ecstasy one would expect in the presence of the Virgin and Child, appear dour, imbecilic and just plain creepy.

This swatch of juvenile ineptitude is little preparation for the epic pathos of the “Deposition” or, two years later, the startling, tactile violence of “Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro” (ca. 1523).

With “Holy Family,” we can imagine that Rosso was trying to pull himself together after the Buonafede debacle, that is, at least as much as he could. Shearman notes that he possessed an “inborn willfulness and exoticism,” which he eventually “channeled [in his Mannerist works] away from passionate communication towards fantasy.”

And Rosenberg, in her review, adds that he was a bit of a kook:

He seems to have been a high-strung and mischievous character; per Vasari, he kept a pet monkey that stole grapes from a neighbor’s garden. He quarreled with his patrons and was at one point blacklisted by fellow artists. He is thought to have committed suicide by drinking poison after making accusations of theft against a close friend that turned out to be false.

But larcenous monkeys and troublesome patrons were not all Rosso was contending with. His restlessness and irascibility were partially a product of his times. As David Franklin writes in Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550 (Yale, 2001):

With the rise of Michelangelo and Leonardo, it became apparent that an outstanding artist hoped to be perceived neither as a craftsman nor necessarily as having undergone a proper apprenticeship but as someone with a markedly individual talent. What is remarkable is how this attitude affected painters like Rosso and Pontormo at an age so young that it seems to have allowed them free rein over their own training.

While we wouldn’t call Rosso and his generation de-skilled, they seem to have expected that their genius would overcome — or at least diminish — whatever formal obstacles lay in their path. This may explain the go-for-broke attack evident in “Holy Family,” in which the figures appear thrown together helter-skelter.

The Christ Child is especially awkward. His head is monstrous, equal in size to the oval of his mother’s face beneath her veil. His eyes are too large — again, equal to Mary’s — and the lush bangs covering his too-squat forehead give him a vaguely simian look (perhaps the influence of the pet monkey). Not to mention the anomaly of his left big toe, which shoots precipitously out of the middle of his instep.

A gnomic St. Joseph, his face virtually dissolving into locks of white hair, gazes up at Mary with an expression that was probably meant to signify awe. Instead he comes across — from a comically low vantage point — like a cannibal who has just happened upon his evening’s dinner.

The same holds true for the young St. John, jammed up against Mary’s stomach, his wide-open mouth no less hungry than Joseph’s. Or perhaps he has his sights set on the nipple bulging beneath her robe.

And those are just the most blatant oddities and anatomical miscues. There is also the relationship between mother and child, which feels subtly detached. The Madonna’s spiderlike fingertips, like something out of a Louise Bourgeois drawing, barely touch Jesus’ thigh. It is as she is presenting him as a trophy without a hint of affection.

In other words, the image is a mass of psychological eruptions, which is the way we post-Freudian viewers like it. Yet the painting wouldn’t be worth looking at if not for its astringent abstraction: the jigsaw-like shape that conceals the top and right edges in a dark canopy, and the elemental geometry that divides the composition into three equal columns.

The abstraction, coupled with the raw psychodrama played out through the act of painting, presents us with a surprisingly contemporary set of variables, not the least of which is the image’s unsettling duplicity.

At first glance a tender depiction of a mother and child, its honey suddenly turns bituminous before our eyes, infusing the most familiar of tropes with an alien and irredeemable beauty. Rosso’s brutally expressive compulsions pin us where we stand.

Single Point Perspective is an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.

Rosso Fiorentino’s “Holy Family with the Young Saint John the Baptist” (c.1520) is on view as part of Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing, which continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through February 3, 2013.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.