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I promised a beautiful painting of Jesus for Easter and here is one of my favorite altarpieces from the Met. This wonderful painting is “The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor.” It was largely painted by Joos Van Cleve (with some assistance from an unknown collaborator) and was finished around 1520. The painting is very lovely to look at! Joos Van Cleve endowed each of the saints with radiant fashionable beauty and energy. From left to right, we see John the Baptist with his lamb and coarse robe; Saint Catherine with her sinister wheel (yet looking splendid in silk brocade and perfect makeup); Mary is leftmost on the main panel in royal blue; Saint Paul holds the cross and touches the head of the donor (whose money made all of this possible); and Saint John wears vermilion garb and has a book in a pouch as he gesticulates about theology. On the right panel are two Italian saints, Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino. Probably this altarpiece was an Italian commission or maybe the Flemish donor had business or family connections in Italy.
But van Cleve’s delightful saints are only half of the picture. In the background, the unknown collaborator has painted a magnificently picturesqe landscape of cold blue and lush green. Fabulous medieval towns come to life amidst prosperous farmlands. Rivers snake past forboding fortresses and great ports. The distant mountains become more fantastical and more blue till they almost seem like surreal abstraction in the distance. You should blow up the picture and let your spirit wander through this landscape (I think WordPress has discontinued that feature in a bid to frustrate users, however you can go the Met’s website and zoom into the painting and step directly back into 16th century northern Europe).
Somewhat lost in this pageant of visual wonders is, you know, Jesus. The painting’s lines don’t even really point to him. He suffers on his cross in emaciated, gray-faced anguish, forgotten by the richly robed saints and the wealthy burghers of the low country. Only the Virgin seems particularly anxious. Yet, though Van Cleve has de-emphasized the savior within the composition, he has painted Christ with rare grace and feeling. The viewer can get lost in the landscape (or looking at Catherine’s lovely face) but then, as we are craning our neck to see around the cross, the presence of a nailed foot reminds us this is a scene of horror and divinity. I have spent a long time looking at this painting and I found the the juxtaposition of wealth, industry, fashion, and riches, with the overlooked figure of Jesus naked and suffering to be quite striking. It is a reminder to re-examine the story of Jesus again against the context of more familiar surroundings. I am certainly no Christian (not anymore) but it seems like there might even be a lesson here for America’s ever-so-pious evangelicals. With all of the excitement of wealth and political power and 24 hour Fox news and mean supreme court justices and billionaire golfers and super models and what not, I wonder if there is anyone they are maybe forgetting…
Here is Andrea Mantegna’s exquisite tempera masterpiece showing the crucifixion of Jesus. I am going to present it without much comment except to note that it is a high-resolution file so you can (and should!) click on it to see a larger version. By doing so you will be sucked into the disturbing, beautiful 15th century world of Mantegna where everything and everyone seems to be carved of some aristocratic stone (quarried perhaps from the Golgotha they stand upon). Tempera paint gives an artist the ability to paint with disquieting hyper-realism, but it takes away some of the velvety shadows and lifelike glow which have made oil paint the preferred medium for western art for six centuries. In the hands of an all-time master like Mantegna tempera’s strengths and limitations creates an unearthly effect fully appropriate for the death of the savior.
Just in time for the holidays, here’s another “Madonna and Child” painting by Carlos Crivelli, the enigmatic Quattrocento master. Ferrebeekeeper has already featured two posts about Crivelli including a short biography (which includes just about everything we know about him) and an exquisite painting of Mary Magdalene. Today we present another Crivelli tempera masterpiece from 1460 which shows Mary holding a pensive baby Jesus as creepy little foreshadowing figures gather round. Although Mary is not without a certain supercilious beauty, the two central figures are not nearly as fine as in other Crivelli masterpieces. Standing on his little black velvet pillow like a demagogue orator, Jesus looks downright horrifying (and he also seems suitably appalled at knowing his own fate). The great strength of the painting lies in the supporting cast of corpulent androgynous children brandishing accoutrements of the crucifixion. The little beings to the right solemnly proffer a crown of thorns and a cross to infant Jesus. On the left, one child (wearing tiger skin grieves!) holds a fistful of crucifixion nails while his naked playmate grasps a classical column with spidery hands. Behind him are children with a lance, a bucket of vinegar, and a ladder. The little lanceman on the left is staring up at an allegorical rooster standing atop capitol. In the background, on the right, the death of Christ takes place on a distant hill, while at the top, beyond a garland of peaches, pears, cherries, and songbirds, a final pair of putti play divine music on the harp and lute. The suffusion of tiny black pits or holes in the composition was probably not intended by Crivelli (although he did have a fascination with nail wounds), but it adds an extra dimension of entropy, torment, and decay to an already vexing painting. Once again Crivelli deftly takes traditional religious elements of the passion and arranges them into an allegory which seems to subtly elude the comprehension of the viewer. Is that Peter’s rooster or is it some lost symbol of 15th century Italy? Are the childish beings with the implements of Christ’s death a vision of the anguished Christ child, or are they meant to represent us, the viewer, tormentors and torturers of the world who, like ignorant children, don’t even understand what we are doing?
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.