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The Crucifixion (Rogier Van der Weyden, ca. 1445, oil on panel)

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.

Detail of Right Panel

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.”

Detail of Mary Magdalen

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.

Joachim Patinir  (c. 1480 – October 5, 1524) is one of my favorite painters, partly because the Met has an exquisite triptych by him, but mostly for his amazing ability to paint the entire sweep of life within his landscapes—a form the Germans called Weltlandschaft (“world landscape”).

Landscape with Charon Crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir

In this painting, Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, currently held by the Prado, the ferryman Charon rows a departed soul down the River Styx.   On the left side of the painting is paradise, a land of fountains, forests, and rivers emptying out into rich wetlands.  On the right lies the infernal city of the damned.  The tiny wavering spirit must choose–but see how his eyes dart towards Hell and away from the beckoning angel…

This painting is divided by color from front to back.  The foreground is the brown of earth.  Lilies, irises, and other flowers sprout directly out of the soil and work their way into the umber rocks.  The middle of the painting is green and filled up with birds, angels, and forest creatures.   The far horizon is pale blue dotted with tiny churches and universities.

The painting is also divided by color from left to right.  Paradise is pastoral: a country landscape of green, blue, and white. The angels are interspersed with deer and geese.  Hell is portrayed in black and orange and red.  But Patinir’s hell is a different affair from Bosch’s hell, which had been painted a generation before.  Three headed Cerberus seems quiet and oddly plaintive.  The lands in front of the gate are filled with fruit trees, lilies and parrots.  It is true that the gatehouse is decked in hanged corpses, but so would be the entrance to any town in Patinir’s native Wallonia. In fact aside from the occasional ogre or impaled human, the horrors of Dis are almost too indistinct to make out.  It could almost be a foundry or just a smoky medieval town rather than the abode of the damned.

Of course there is a moralizing message in Patinir’s work.  The indecisive spirit must choose between right and wrong.  But the choice is not the stark choice offered by Bosch or van Eyck.  The painter is not proselytizing relentlessly, rather the mood is elegiac.  Heaven is the wilderness: countryside, animals, trees, and solitude.  Hell looks like a city with all the hurly-burly of society.  If we stripped the painting of its Medieval Flemish context it could almost be an environmentalist artwork–or at least a defense of country pleasures against the press of urban living.

Patinir's hometown: Dinant in Wallonia

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