Boltraffico’s Reluctant Donor

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffico – you’ve probably never heard of him. From what I can find, he was a minor portrait painter in the Italian Renaissance who studied under da Vinci for eight years. He lived in Milan almost his entire life – twice he flirted with other cities. There are some Boltrafficos in local Milanese politics of the time, so I’m assuming he was connected there.

However, he has a painting in the Louvre. It’s called Virgin with Child and Sts John the Baptist and Sebastian and two donors. A clunky name for an intriguing canvas. It was the most artistic Boltraffico ever got, and what a crazy little story it tells…

The digital file I’ve linked to doesn’t do the canvas justice. For one, the expressions are priceless, especially the baby Jesus. He looks out at the viewer with what I interpret as the most sublime version of “Whatever” I’ve ever seen in a painting. John’s expression, too, is much more put-upon and arrogant when you’re standing before it.

Understand this: when I went to the Louvre, I wandered down the right side of the long hall that houses most of the Italian collection, the side that contains the entrance to the Mona Lisa’s gallery. Boltraffico’s painting is hung on the left. So before I got there, I found another painting – Guido Reni’s Abduction of Helen. It captures the two lovers as they leave together for Troy. It’s an incredible puzzle that you could follow right through.

Helen is caught stepping off the threshold of her home. A servant carries a little dog (symbol of marital fidelity) that is looking back forlornly at the door they’ve left. Another servant carries a box, supposedly of jewelry, but reminiscent of Pandora’s box to me. In the foreground another cute little dog is staring at a crouching monkey held by a romantically clad black servant boy. The servant boy is also stepping off the threshold, and the monkey is primed to attack the puzzled little dog. It reminded me more of a large iguana or lizard in its shape, and when you learn that a monkey is the symbol of naked desire and treachery, it’s apparent why. The poor little foreground dog has no chance in the painting at all – Paris’s foot, stepping on the road behind the dog, can also be seen as about to step on the dog itself.

In the corner of the Paris/Helen painting, Cupid points to the scene with a cherubic sense of knowing pride: “That’s all mine!” His foot rests on a fallen chunk of masonry, and so will Troy be once the event we are witnessing plays through to the end. It’s a crisply executed cartoon of sexual politics.

Cupid should have made an appearance in Boltraffico’s work as well, for it’s unmistakably coded with a story of gay love. As it is, we must only see the weeping wounds of Sebastian as evidence of Cupid’s arrows. St. Sebastian has long been recognized as a gay icon whether his portrayers knew this or not. After a detailed study of the painting, I’m going to say that Boltraffico knew full well what he was doing.

The first thing that caught my eye was St. Sebastian’s package. Here is another place where the digital copy doesn’t do the painting justice. Let me assure you: we have a banana hammock going on. It startled me on first viewing. Sebastian’s male bits are usually de-emphasized. He’s the patron saint of power bottoms after all. Yet Sebastian is nearly nude; the resulting emphasis of his small patch of clothing in the painting is unmistakable. I wondered how Boltraffico got away with it. And then I moved on to the wounds. The arrows are missing, and Sebastian is not gazing up, but down. It’s a unusual depiction of the saint all together.

However, John the Baptist is in all his usual trappings. He’s clad in his rugged clothes, he’s got a cross, he’s pointing at the Christ Child…but he’s not. Follow the line of the Baptist’s finger – it moves first through the cross trimming on top of the Virgin’s head and then straight on to Sebastian’s groin. This is not a mistake on Boltraffico’s part. Now the Baptist’s expression becomes totally obvious – another gorgeous straight man who has to put up with the desires of a gay man in love with him. The Baptist’s cross also intersects a sight line – if the Baptist and Sebastian looked at each other, the wooden cross would come between them.

But they are not looking at each other. The Baptist turns his bemusement to us, while Sebastian is gazing down, again through the cross detail of the Virgin’s head covering, at the Christ Child. His serene gaze is one of beatific contemplation, and only the tears of his wounds (almost clear like the fluid that came from Christ’s side) give a hint of his eternal sadness. It is as if the pain of the Baptist’s rejection has been mitigated by Sebastian’s suffering and devotion to the Christ Child. Mitigated, I say, not removed – the wounds weep still.

Which brings us to the anonymous donors. They also split the frame, one on the Baptist side, the other on Sebastian’s. Both kneel in prayer. The donor on the left, the Baptist’s donor, holds his hands forward from him. His expression is hauntingly beautiful, one of the best of the piece. It’s in shadow, and yet the beseeching eyes are remarkable. They look, not at the Virgin or the Child, but at Sebastian’s donor, who does not return his gaze. Stubbornly, he looks down at the Child, his hands clutched flat against his chest as if armoring his heart against another blow. What wound did he receive long ago from the beautiful man on the left? Does the Baptist’s donor seek forgiveness for an youthful insult? And having retreated to the symbology of the church to assuage his pain and guilt, does Sebastian’s donor now find himself unable to forgive, fearful of another blow to the heart?

The Baptist and his donor are very different in demeanor, much more so than Sebastian and his. The Baptist is almost contemptuous, looking at us, while his donor is gentle and insistent, looking at his counterpart. Both Sebastian and his donor look to the Child, Sebastian with utter serenity, the donor with a measure of pouting. Sebastian and the Baptist become idealized expression of the inner state of these men, what both men ultimately long to be internally. Sebastian’s donor is looking for that blissful ignorance of everything but Salvation Born. The Baptist’s donor is much more conflicted. On the surface, he’s benevolent and gentle, but his aggressive gaze and prayer posture allows the Baptist’s attitude to filter through the deceitful kindness.

The standoff between these two will continue. The frustration of the Baptist will go unrelieved. And in the midst of it all, Mary and Jesus regard us. Mary meekly sits there, almost embarrassed to be seen in this setting. The Christ Child doesn’t take in his admirers, but impishly points to the evidence of his own power to confound men, the reluctant donor.

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