This weekend, many Christians are celebrating the festival of Easter, although for Eastern Orthodox faiths there’s still another week to go. To mark what many consider to be the most important of all the Christian festivals, I offer two articles. This looks at a selection of paintings of the Crucifixion, and its sequel tomorrow considers its the Resurrection.
For over half a millennium, scenes of the Crucifixion were a staple product of many professional painters in western Europe. Every chapel or church needed at least one, often in the form of a multi-panelled altarpiece.
Duccio’s unusually small Triptych: Crucifixion and Other Scenes from 1302-08 was probably intended as a portable devotional work, in that its wings fold neatly over the centre panel to protect their painted surfaces. It’s typical in showing the single cross in its centre panel, with two figures at its foot, although in this case they’re not the donors who paid for the artist’s work.
Jan, the younger of the van Eyck brothers, established himself as a master painter with small religious works. This is the left panel of his Diptych of The Crucifixion and The Last Judgment from about 1420-25, and is impressive in its complexity, with the crowd scene in the foreground, all three crosses, and an elaborate background.
Although Masaccio’s Crucifixion from about 1426 was composed to the standard formulae, it also reflects his efforts to depict 3D space more faithfully. Here he recognises the fact that, at the top of an altarpiece, the scene will always be viewed from below. Accordingly Christ’s head appears to be oddly flexed at the neck, when the painting is seen from perpendicular to its picture plane. He has shaded and modelled Christ’s body, the faces, and clothes of the three Marys to give effective depth and volume.
Raphael’s Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, known also as The Mond Crucifixion, was painted early in his career, between about 1502-03, when he was still strongly influenced by his teacher Perugino. Raphael painted this for the church of San Domenico in Città di Castello, to the north of Perugia in Italy. It’s known as the The Mond Crucifixion as it entered the collection of Ludwig Mond in London in 1892, having left Italy in around 1847.
Perhaps the greatest and most innovative of these Renaissance versions is Tintoretto’s vast Crucifixion of 1565. In this masterpiece created for the Albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, he applied lessons learned painting tall works for the Madonna dell’Orto. He makes use of space and employs a narrative technique based on the traditional ‘multiplex’ form, in which its single image shows events at more than a single point in time, in an ingenious and modern manner. Naturally, the painting centres on Christ crucified, but the two thieves executed beside him aren’t shown, as would be traditional, already hanging from their crosses.
Peter Paul Rubens also painted a huge panel showing the Crucifixion, although in this case it’s strictly speaking a Deposition: this centre panel, Descent from the Cross (1612-14), is from his triptych commissioned by the Confraternity of the Arquebusiers of Antwerp for the Cathedral of Our Lady in that city. This remains one of Rubens’ greatest religious paintings.
William Blake’s The Crucifixion: ‘Behold Thy Mother’ from about 1805 is a traditional scene from the Passion, and refers to the Gospel of John, chapter 19 verses 26-27:
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
By the nineteenth century, paintings of the Crucifixion were becoming more innovative again.
While the French Naturalist artist Luc-Olivier Merson was in Italy, he concentrated on religious and historical paintings, some of which are almost phantasmagoric in content. The Vision (1872) combines an altered image of the Crucifixion with that of a nun in an apparent ecstasy, and an angelic musical trio. It’s strongly suggestive of the much later paintings of Surrealists, particularly those of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).
Léon Bonnat’s more conventional Christ on the Cross from about 1874 is perhaps the best demonstration of this great teacher’s mastery of the figure, and a formidable example for his students.
Carolus-Duran’s Obsession (1898) is another unusual work, which shows a woman in contemporary dress collapsed in grief at the foot of the Crucifixion. In the sky behind is a cloud containing indistinct figures.
It took James Tissot to reverse the view in What Our Lord Saw from the Cross, which he painted in watercolour as one of his series of over 350 illustrations for The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, published in 1899.