A Thebaid: Monks and Hermits in a Landscape

Lorenzo Costa “A Thebaid: Monks and Hermits in a Landscape” (Italian, about 1505)
Pen and brown ink; 8 x 8 1/8 in.
A Thebaid
“Using only pen and ink, Lorenzo Costa portrayed the cradle of Christian monasticism, the Thebaid, a Roman division of the upper Nile River valley. Beginning with Saint Paul of Thebes and Saint Anthony of Egypt in the 200s, Christian monks retreated to this region, to live a solitary life of ascetism and prayer. Over time, these monks, also known as “desert fathers,” organized into communities.

Costa’s scratchy, energetic draftmanship created a bustling composition filled with monks and a landscape riddled with the grottoes, huts, and caves they used for prayer and shelter. He portrayed an imaginary scene, incorporating a variety of monastic saints and spanning different periods. In the upper left background, Saints Paul and Anthony are shown seated, receiving bread from a raven through which God provided nourishment. Mary Magdalene, who supposedly lived her later years alone in the desert, stands near the river to the right. The landscape itself appears more European than Egyptian, perhaps reflecting Costa’s native countryside around Bologna, Italy, rather than the real Thebaid.”

“Lorenzo Costa b. about 1460 Ferrara, Italy, d. 1535 Mantua, Italy. Painter. Italian
Scholars know little about Lorenzo Costa’s life and artistic training. Early on he was influenced by the austere Ferrarese painters Cosimo Tura and Ercole de’ Roberti, and he may have been the pupil of one of them.

By 1483 Costa had settled in Bologna, where he lived until 1506, except for a brief interlude in Ferrara and trips to Tuscany and Umbria. In Bologna he decorated many chapels with frescoes, in addition to making easel paintings. Some works show the influence of Perugino, Raphael’s teacher, whose work heralded the Renaissance. Costa’s “Madonna and Child with Saints” altarpiece of 1492 in Bologna’s San Petronio church is one of his few securely dated works.

After earlier commissions from the Gonzaga family, in 1507 he moved to Mantua to become their court painter, succeeding Andrea Mantegna. Costa remained there until his death, painting a range of subjects from portraits to religious paintings.”

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