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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Art and Jesus--The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion, ca. 1300, Giotto

Crucifix, ca. 1200, Master Guglielmo
Undoubtedly, the most powerful image from the life of Jesus Christ is that of his crucifixion. Yet strangely, artists were fairly late picking up on the death of Christ, despite it's crucial importance in Christian doctrine. In fact the earliest graphic depiction of the crucifixion was in the form of anti-Christian graffiti (below, right). It wasn't until around the year 1200 that artists such as Guglielmo began to explore Christ crucified as in his crudely painted crucifix from that period (left).

The Alexamenos Graffito, 2/3rd c.
CE, tracing of the drawing
The Medieval artist Giotto, around 1300 (top), was one of the earliest to evoke the pathos of this theretofore unspeakable act of torture in fresco (painting on wet plaster). Though highly decorated, with angels swarming like gnats, the saints, donors., and royalty at the bottom add a certain contemporary poignancy to the scene. His Crucifix of Maria Novella in Florence (below, left), is closely related to the fresco.

Crucifix of Santa Maria Novella,
1290-1300, Giotto di Bondone
Holy Trinity, 1425, Masaccio
Masaccio's Holy Trinity fresco (right) dating from 1425, while depicting the crucifixion, goes beyond that to explore the relationship of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit to Christian worshippers (depicted at the bottom).
Crucifixion, 1455-60, Andrea Mantegna
Christ on the Cross, 1541, Michelangelo
A generation later, around 1455-60, the Italian artist, Andrea Mantegna (above), was one of the first to paint the crucifixion in oil in this rather garishly colored altarpiece. About a hundred years later in 1541, the great Michelangelo tried his hand at depicting Christ on the Cross (left). The head seems too small.

Crucifixion with Centurion, 1538, 
Lucas Cranach (the elder).
By the 16th century the crucifixion had become a standard item in most artists' repertoire, though it remained a difficult subject to embrace. Some artists were not as successful as others, as seen in the work of Lucas Cranach (the elder), and his ineptly rendered, totally unscriptural Crucifixion with Centurion (left), which adds an almost comic element to the scene.

Isenheim Altarpiece Crucifixion, 1510-15, Mathias Grunewald
By the same token, the German artist, Matthias Grunewald moves to the opposite extreme in his excruciatingly detailed, melodramatic image. The work is the central panel of the famous Isenheim altarpiece (above) from around 1512. His style is typical of northern Renaissance artists.

Crucifixion, 1622, Anthony van Dyck
Christ on the Cross with the two
Marys and St. John, El Greco
The Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck (above, left), painting in 1622, was among the first to give us the naturalistic image of Christ's death, to which we've become much more accustomed. Yet, at about the same time, the Spanish artist, El Greco (above right), renders a much more spiritual, more stylized depiction.

The Crucifixion of Christ, Tintoretto
The Crucifixion, 1632,
Diego Velasquez
We've looked at the work of the Mannerist painter, Tintoretto, earlier and here we see that his Crucifixion (above), though perhaps quite accurate, is every bit as darkly dramatic as his Last Supper. Mary and John are seen at the far left. What appears to be an entire Roman legion fills the background.

The Spanish artist, Diego Velasquez moves to the opposite extreme in his straight-forward, highly simplified, 1632 depiction of The Crucifixion (left). Rembrandt, on the other hand, though also Dutch, is much more subdued in his handling of the very same subject (below, left). The figure in the background wearing a turban is Rembrandt himself, who, because of his sins, is symbolically taking responsibility for Christ's death. Far more Baroque, the Dutch artist, Peter Paul Rubens overwhelms us with brute force in his muscular Raising of the Cross (below, right), also dating from the early 1600s.

Crucifixion, 1633, Rembrandt, includes
a self-portrait in the background.
Raising of the Cross (center panel),
1610-11, Peter Paul Rubens

Flagellation, 1880, Bouguereau,
Active violence was more "Romantic."
Sketch of Christ on the Cross,
1845, Delacroix.
Pieta, 1876, Gustave Moreau
During the 1700s, religious painting, and thus crucifixions, took a rest. The subject was hardly suited to the frivolous, light-hearted Rococo style of this era. But with the advent of the Classical style in the early 1800s, we find French artists such as Bouguereau not only returning to the subject but depicting the crucifixion in brutal, almost photographic detail. His Flagellation (above, left) from 1880, is not actually a crucifixion but an even more actively violent depiction of an event occurring hours earlier. By mid-century, with the coming of the Romantic era, the French artist Eugene Delacroix gives us a much more heartfelt oil sketch, seemingly done at the foot of the cross during the event itself (above, right). Gustave Moreau's Pieta (left, Mary with the body of Christ) also from the Romantic era around 1876, though not a crucifixion, is much in the same vein.

White Crucifixion, 1938, Marc Chagall
The 20th century brought us Modern Art. The crucifixion was hardly a mainstay of this era but it's not without highly individual renderings such as Russian artist, Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion (above) dating from 1938. He depicts Jesus against a background of anti-Semite violence. Interestingly, Chagall was Jewish.

Crucifixion, 1954, Salvador Dali
Christ of St. John on the Cross,
 1951, Salvador Dali

During the 1950s, the Spanish surrealist artist, Salvador Dali took the crucifixion and made it his own as seen in his Crucifixion, (above, left) from 1954 as seen in his own brand of exquisitely rendered, strangely supernatural Surrealism. Perhaps his most powerful piece, Christ of St. John on the Cross (above, right), gives us a "God's eye" view of Christ's suffering. Whether with paint on canvas or on paper, Dali explored the crucifixion  like no other artist before or since. From the same point of view, the famous Riker's Island Crucifixion (below), was donated by the artist in 1965 after he had to cancel a lecture and demonstration there. For many years, it was displayed in the New York City prison.

Riker's Island Crucifixion, 1965, Salvador Dali


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