Born in what was then the provincial backwater of Genoa, Luca Cambiaso became that city’s leading artist in the 16th century, indirectly absorbing the influence of more cosmopolitan northern Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Correggio (1489-1534). Cambiaso was active as an artist during the Counter-Reformation, when a chastened and resurgent Catholic Church was keen to reassert religious dogma. Cambiaso constructed this altarpiece as a study in contrasts, which might be called the sensuous and the severe. St. John, whose energetic S-curve form suggests the passion of an ascetic, seeks an intimacy with the Christ Child that borders on the sensual. Meanwhile, the austere St. Benedict stands draped in deepest black, iconic and hieratic. His eyes are not on those around him, but are solemnly fixed on the viewer; like the Holy Church he represents, St. Benedict is here the keeper of the mystery, the rather forbidding intercessor through whom salvation must be approached.
Resources: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Sue Taylor and Richard A. Born (New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 1990), 44–45; Linda Seidel, Pious Journeys: Christian Devotional Art and Practice in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance, exh. cat. (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, 2001), 69–70.