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Probably the most common theme of Gothic painting was the crucifixion of Christ, an event which was central to the universe-view of nearly all Europeans of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. To observe Good Friday, here is a triptych of the Crucifixion painted by one of my favorite Flemish painters, Rogier Van der Weyden (1399 or 1400 – 1464). The painting was probably completed around 1445 and can today be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Very little is known concerning Van der Weyden’s life and training. We know that he was an international success and rose to the position (created expressly for him) of official painter of Brussels–then the location of the renowned court of the Dukes of Burgundy. But aside from that, only tidbits are known about a man who was probably the most influential and gifted Northern European painter of the 15th century.
Van der Weyden painted from models, and this crucifixion demonstrates a very compelling realism. The grief and incredulity of the mourners is conveyed in their vivid expressions and poses. The magnificent color and beauty of their garb underlines the importance of the spectacle. Behind the figures is a huge empty landscape which runs continuously through all three panels. The left wing shows a medieval castle, but the other two panels present a strange idealized Jerusalem.
Mary Magdalene is the lone figure of the left panel and St. Veronica is similarly isolated on the right panel. In the middle, John the Apostle tries to comfort a distraught Mary who is grabbing the foot of the cross as her son dies. To the right of the cross are the wealthy donors who paid Van der Weyden for painting the picture. To quote Bruce Johnson’s Van der Weyden webpage, “The donors, a married couple, have approached the Cross; they are shown on the same scale as the saints, though they are not to be seen as really part of the Crucifixion scene – they are present only in thought, in their prayer and meditation, and are thus on a different plane of reality from the other figures.”
The greatest glory of the painting is its nuanced palette. The magnificent vermilion and ultramarine robes leap out of the muted green landscapes. Van der Weyden was renowned for using many different colors. Art historians have averred that even the white tones in his greatest compositions are all subtly different. Color also lends an otherworldly numinous quality to the dark angels hovering unseen on indigo wings as the execution takes place.