As Easter approaches, I want to share with you some of my favourite depictions of the drama of Christ. I will do it in two parts. In the first part I will present paintings from the 13th to the 18th century. In the second part I will present paintings after the 19th century. In all paintings, except Cimabue and Giotto, I have inserted comments made by the museums where they are kept. In some instances, I have added also my comments in italics.
Church of Santa Croce, Firenze
In the same church where Michelangelo is burried, you can find this masterpiece of the mentor of Giotto. The figure of Christ on the Cross has influenced Francis Bacon when he created his own Crucifixion triptych (it will be shown in Part II). It is a very intense picture. The simplicity of the palette brings out the severity of the subject.
Crucifixion (circa 1305)
Scrovegni Chapel, Padova
In stark contrast to Cimabue’s intense but minimal composition, this is a busy crucifixion, with a lot of people and angels around. The lack of intensity is its major drawback, although Giotto’s mastery of colours and composition is evident.
Rogier van der Weyden
The Crucifixion Triptych (circa 1440)
“The scene presented today as the wing of an altarpiece probably originates from a single panel on which the frame was only painted. At an early stage the work was sawn into three pieces so that the depictions of Mary Magdalene and St. Veronica became side-wings of a triptych. The great artistic innovation of van der Weyden may therefore have carried even greater weight in the original version: for the first time he combines all the participants – the crucifixion group, saints and benefactors – in front of a unified landscape in which the idealised view of Jerusalem appears on the horizon.”
Source: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning (circa 1460)
“The greatest old master painting in the Museum, Rogier van der Weyden’s diptych presents the Crucifixion as a timeless dramatic narrative. To convey overwhelming depths of human emotion, Rogier located monumental forms in a shallow, austere, nocturnal space accented only by brilliant red hangings. He focused on the experience of the Virgin, her unbearable grief expressed by her swooning into the arms of John the Evangelist. The intensity of her anguish is echoed in the agitated, fluttering loincloth that moves around Christ’s motionless body as if the air itself were astir with sorrow. Rogier’s use of two panels in a diptych, rather than the more usual three found in a triptych, is rare in paintings of this period, and allowed the artist to balance the human despair at the darkest hour of the Christian faith against the promise of redemption.”
Katherine Crawford Luber, fromPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 167.
The Small Crucifixion, c. 1511/1520
“Matthias Grünewald’s Small Crucifixion is a masterful example of that artist’s ability to translate his deep spiritual faith into pictorial form. Each individual, according to Grünewald, must reexperience within himself not only the boundless joy of Christ’s triumphs but also the searing pains of his Crucifixion.
In order to communicate this mystical belief, Grünewald resorted to a mixture of ghastly realism and coloristic expressiveness. Silhouetted against a greenish-blue sky and illuminated by an undefined light source, Christ’s haggard and emaciated frame sags limply on the cross. The details — the twisted and gnarled feet and hands, the crown of thorns, the agonized look upon Jesus’ face, and the ragged loincloth — bear strident witness to physical suffering and emotional torment. This abject mood is intensified by the anguished expressions and demonstrative gestures of John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, and the kneeling Mary Magdalene.
Grünewald’s dissonant, eerie colors were also rooted in biblical fact. The murky sky, for instance, corresponds to Saint Luke’s description of “a darkness over all the earth.” Grünewald, who himself witnessed a full eclipse in 1502, has recreated here the dark and rich tonalities associated with such natural phenomena.
Today, only twenty paintings by Grünewald are extant, and The Small Crucifixion is the only one of them in America.”
Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
“A night view of Calvary with a markedly Eucharistic character. Mary Magdalene, at Christ’s feet, and three angels collecting the blood of the slain Savior, appear framed by the figures of the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist.
Light and color are used to bring dramatic intensity to the chosen subject, generating a night scene with highly contrasted colors. Some figures, such as that of Mary Magdalene, follow Italian models, recalling the artist’s training.
Along with other paintings in the Prado Museum, this was probably painted for the attic of the altarpiece in the church of the Augustine College of María de Aragón in Madrid.”
Source: Museo National del Prado
“Christ is depicted on the Cross, over a black background, with four nails and a foot platform, in keeping with the tradition of seventeenth-century Spanish painting. Nevertheless, the classic concept of beauty brought to Spain by Mengs and Bayeu is also perceptible. And Goya softens the bloodiest and most dramatic aspects of this subject, bringing out the beauty of the nude body.
Goya presented this work at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in May, 1780, gaining the rank of Academician of Merit with it. The canvas was sent to the church of San Francisco el Grande, whose decoration was sponsored by the King, himself. Thus, the Academy recognized the technical qualities of this painting, as well as the orthodoxy of its image.”
Source: Museo National del Prado
As the first part is closing, it is interesting to note that in this painting it is as if Goya is shaking hands with Cimabue.