To mark Good Friday, this year I bring a selection of more modern depictions of the Crucifixion, starting with William Blake in the early years of the nineteenth century.
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.
Elihu Vedder’s Return from Calvary (c 1867) shows an unusual view of the Crucifixion, with the crosses in the background behind a large crowd presumably dispersing back into Jerusalem. Although it’s tempting to presume that the figures in the foreground are the Marys and Joseph of Arimathea, as they were present at the deposition of Christ’s body from the cross, and its removal for burial, that couldn’t be the case.
Golgotha (Consummatum Est, or Jerusalem) from 1867 is one of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s few religious paintings, which composes the scene of the crucifixion in a novel way. It shows the view from Golgotha looking towards Jerusalem as the executioners and crowd make their way down toward the city, which is being overwhelmed by darkness.
The three crucifixions are not shown directly, but only in shadows cast by a brilliant light.
Christ on the Cross from about 1874 is perhaps the best demonstration of Léon Bonnat’s mastery of the figure, a formidable example for his many students.
Vasily Vereshchagin’s Crucifixion in the Time of the Romans from 1887 is an unusual treatment of one of the standards of Christian religious painting, whose crowd includes some dressed in contemporary religious garb.
For his illustrated version of the New Testament, one of James Tissot’s watercolours adopted the unique viewpoint of What Our Lord Saw from the Cross (1886-1894).
The remaining paintings are taken from less-known works of Lovis Corinth, whose religious paintings have been eclipsed by his more popular works.
Corinth painted Ecce Homo at Easter, 1925, as an act of meditation to mark the festival. It shows the moment that Pilate presents Christ to the hostile crowd, just before the crucifixion. Christ has been scourged, bound, and crowned with thorns, and Pilate’s words are quoted from the Vulgate translation, meaning behold, the man.
Christ Carrying the Cross (1909) explores Christ’s Passion in real terms. Although this contains most of the usual elements seen in traditional depictions, his language is contemporary, almost secular. Two men, one of them apparently African, are helping Christ bear his exhausting load, while a couple of soldiers are whipping him on, and threatening him with their spears. A third soldier is controlling the crowd at the upper left, and behind is a mounted soldier and one of the disciples.
Red Christ is the last, most striking and original of all Lovis Corinth’s scenes of the Crucifixion. Although modern in its approach and facture, he chose a traditional wood panel as its support, in keeping with much older religious works. The red of Christ’s blood, spurting from the wound made by a spear and oozing from other cuts, is amplified by the red of the clouds and the sun’s rays.
The Deposition (Descent from the Cross) (1895) was one of Lovis Corinth’s major paintings from his early days in Munich, and won a gold medal when exhibited in the Glaspalast in Munich that year. It shows the traditional station of the cross commemorating the lowering of the dead body of Christ from the cross, attended by Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene.
This work is another thoroughly modern approach to a classical theme, in its framing, composition, and the faces. Its close-in cropped view suggests the influence of photography, and the faces shown appear contemporary and not in the least historic. These combine to give it the immediacy of a current event, rather than something that happened almost two millenia ago.
Whatever your beliefs, I hope you find these paintings thought-provoking and of contemporary relevance.