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Crucifixion of Christ

Attributed to Della Porta Guglielmo

(Porlezza c. 1542 - Rome 1597)

Standing out against a slate background, modelled in white wax, are the three crosses with Christ and the two thieves. A multitude of people is depicted at the foot of the cross, men are busy lifting and anchoring the crosses, Roman centurions on horseback are pointing their spears at Christ, and figures in oriental dress are arguing. The commotion seems to spread to the foreground, crossing over the rocks, the only hint of Mount Golgotha: on the right, two soldiers are fighting over Christs garments, while two others, armed with daggers, are fighting each other; on the left, the Virgin Mary is fainting, overpowered by grief, and supported by the Pious Women and Mary Magdalene, and St John the Evangelist is praying.

The sumptuous and elaborate frame in ebony, bronze, lapis lazuli and semiprecious stones is of the same period as the bas-relief; the whole piece is documented in the Borghese collections from 1619. The Crucifixion of Christ has been attributed to Guglielmo della Porta on the basis of stylistic similarities with another relief in Stockholm and with some drawings in the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.


Object details

1550-1577 ca.
slate, wax (relief); ebony, marble, gilded copper, lapis lazuli, red jasper, amethyst, chalcedony (frame)
cm. 68x46 (rilievo); cm. 148x86 (cornice)

The frame, in the form of an aedicule, is entirely decorated in semi-precious stone inlay: crowned at the top by a mixtilinear tympanum resting on a plain architrave, it has two pilasters at this sides with gilded Ionic capitals. The base is punctuated by mirrors with circular inlays of white marble and a floral motif in the centre. It is devoid of the volumes that characterise some of the best examples of frames of the time, and should instead be equated with some of the stipetti (cabinets) and studioli(studies) commonly found in 16th-century Rome, pieces that can be seen in the Capitoline Museums (Opere, 1971-1972, p. 48). This similarity dates it to the same years in which the relief that it frames was probably made.


Borghese Collection, documented in 1619 (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, Nota delle gioie consegnate a D. Marcantonio Senior, 1619, no. 292); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, p. 15; Purchased by the State, 1902.

  • 1971-1972 Roma, Galleria Borghese
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1905 Fossi C.
  • 1907 Bartilucci L.
  • 1915 Fossi C.
  • 1987 Colalucci G. (relief and frame)
  • 1956 OPD (frame )


The relief is characterised by its clear, two-tone colouring, with the dark slate background emphasising the figures modelled in white wax, especially in the upper part where the three crosses immediately capture the observers attention, immersing him in the dark and dramatic atmosphere of the scene. On the cross at the centre is Christ, his head tilted. Facing him, on the cross tothe left, is the good thief, his arms outstretched and raised, in a gesture of prayer; on the right, the bad thief instead has his backturned to Christ and his arms affixed to the cross, from which he hangs lifeless. Numerous men are involved with the crucifixion, surrounded by ladders, saws and other tools and incited by Roman soldiers on horseback and turbaned figures talking. In the foreground on the left are the Virgin, supported by the Pious Women and Mary Magdalene. St John, his face filled with despair, is praying. On the right, two soldiers are fighting over Christs robes, and two others armed with daggers take each other on. The relief has a wealth of detail and, especially in the figures in the foreground, is characterised by accentuated modelling, detailed and deeply carved drapery to emphasise the gestures and movements.

How and when the relief entered the Borghese collections is not known. It is mentioned for the first time in an inventory of the Borghese collection in 1619 (Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, Nota delle gioie consegne a D. Marcantonio Senior, 1619, no. 292). Montelatici (1700, p. 304) recalls it in one of the small rooms on the first floor of the Villa Pinciana, where it was exhibited with four other reliefs, all made with different materials. Venturi argued that it was of the School of Michelangelo (1893, p. 218), while Middeldorf named Guglielmo Della Porta as its author, for the first time, based on a comparison with some of the artists drawings in the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. The scholar, rereading a passage from the Lives in which Vasari speaks of 14 models for reliefs made by the sculptor for bronze castings, suggested that this work might be one of them (although the dimensions do not match). He also assumed that a pupil of the sculptor had worked on some of the details, naming the Flemish Jacob Cobaert (Middeldorf 1935, pp. 90-96). Despite the fineness of the details, Faldi believed it was unlikely that this could be an autonomous work, that such a hypothesis would be contradicted by the use of white wax, and that the relief was a preparatory work for a metal casting (1954, p. 51). Herrmann Fiore refers to a bronze door for St Peters Basilica (1999, p. 38); commissioned to Guglielmo della Porta by Pope Pius IV and never made. It must have consisted of eight panels, necessarily larger than the present relief (Extermann 2012, pp. 67-69).

The attribution to Della Porta, accepted by Venturi (1937, p. 544) and della Pergola (1951, p. 37), is not reported by De Rinaldis, who opts for an unknown Flemish sculptor (1948, p. 53). More recently, Gabhart pointed out a close correlation with a Deposition in gold in the Walters Gallery, New York (Gabhart 1968-69, p. 31).


Sonja Felici

  • D. Montelatici, Villa Borghese fuori di Porta Pinciana con l’ornamenti che si osservano nel di lei Palazzo, Roma 1700, p. 304.
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 218.
  • G. Gronau, Ueber zwei Skizzenbücher des Guglielmo della Porta in der Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie, in “Jahrbuch der Preußischen Kunstsammlungen”, XXXIX (1918), pp. 194-196; Per G 100-4800
  • U. Middeldorf, Two wax reliefs by Guglielmo della Porta, in “The Art Bulletin”, 17, 1935, pp. 90-96.
  • A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana. La scultura del Cinquecento, X, 3, 1937, p. 544.
  • A. De Rinaldis, Catalogo della Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1948, p. 53.
  • P. Della Pergola, La galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1951, p.37.
  • I. Faldi, Galleria Borghese. Le sculture dal sec. XVI al XIX, Roma 1954, pp. 51-52, fig. 49a-49b.
  • P. Della Pergola, Villa Borghese in Roma, Roma 1962, p. 88, fig. 188.
  • W. Gramberg, Die Düsseldorfer Skizzenbücher des Guglielmo della Porta, Berlin 1964, 1, pp. 122-128, cat. 228.
  • A. Gabhart, A Sixteenth-century Gold Relief, in “Journal of the Walters Art Gallery”,1968-1969, pp. 29-39, in part. p. 31, fig. 5.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1971, p. 48, cat. 28.
  • Opere in mosaico, intarsi e pietra paesina, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 1971-1972), a cura di S. Staccioli, Roma 1971, p. 48, fig. 28.
  • Galleria Borghese, a cura di A. Coliva, Roma 1994, p. 312, fig. 165.
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Guida alla Galleria Borghese, Roma 1999, p. 38.
  • P. Moreno, C. Stefani, Galleria Borghese, Milano 2000, p. 125, cat. 8, fig. 8.
  • A. González-Palacios, Arredi e ornamenti alla corte di Roma 1560-1795, Milano 2004, pp. 62-63, fig. p. 65 (cornice).
  • C. Avery, Guglielmo della Porta’s relationship with Michelangelo, in Guglielmo della Porta: a counter-reformation sculptor, a cura di R. Coppel Aréizaga, Madrid 2012, pp. 113-137, in part. pp. 122-124, fig. 72.
  • G. Exterman, Il ciclo della Passione di Cristo di Guglielmo della Porta, in Scultura a Roma nella seconda metà del Cinquecento: protagonisti e problemi, a cura di W. Cupperi, G. Extermann, G. Ioele, San Casciano V.P. 2012, pp. 59-111.
  • S. Pierguidi, Il “trattatello” di Guglielmo della Porta: l’antagonismo con Vasari e i plagi da Tolomei e Ligorio, in “Arte lombarda”, N.S. 170/171.2014, pp. 136-149.
  • Schede di catalogo 12/01008674 (rilievo),12/01008675 (cornice), Giordano L., 1979; aggiornamento Felici S., 2020.