This scene is not described in the Bible, but formed part of medieval devotional literature. Christ looks out at the viewer, inviting the meditation on his suffering which such literature usually invited.
The picture appears to have formed the central part of a small altarpiece with shutters which survive in Antwerp. These include the figures of the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist. The distant figures on the left wear headdresses reminiscent of early 15th-century fashion and appear to have been copied from a Van Eyck 'Crucifixion' (now New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) of that period. The background on the right is badly damaged.
This is an early work by David, perhaps before he became established in Bruges.
Leah Kharibian: François, you’ve brought me to a really quite terrifyingly graphic depiction of the crucifixion by the 15th-century French artist, Gerard David, and I was wondering if you could take us through it and explain what you think he’s up to as an artist.
François Quiviger: Well, the first thing is Christ who occupies very much the centre of the picture in the diagonal of the cross, and he’s being nailed on the cross – his two hands have already been nailed, and his feet haven’t been nailed yet, but are just about to be nailed, and there are these two executioners who are pulling as hard as they can to elongate the body, so Christ is literally stretched on the cross.
Leah Kharibian: It is really a very dramatic composition. Christ is on the ground and yet he’s looking outwards towards us and he is incredibly elongated and stretched. That awful tautness of skin underneath his arm, it’s really quite painful to look at.
François Quiviger: Well, I guess that’s the purpose of this kind of imagery and, in fact, if you read the Gospel in search of these kind of images you won’t find them, because this kind of imagery appears only from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards, when there is a shift in Christianity and when the central god of Christianity, Christ, becomes a human and suffering god. For the purpose of painting this means that from the second part of the Middle Ages onwards, let’s say the 11th or 12th century, the Church wants a kind of imagery that will help people to empathise with what is shown, and when you’re talking of a suffering god, you’re obviously talking of the sense of touch. So slowly painting will try to convey this feeling; in the case of the Passion, intense pain, but in the case of the infancy of Christ, we can think of all these Virgins and Child, which are variations on touching and holding, kissing a baby.
Leah Kharibian: Yes, that sense of touch is very palpable here in a very visceral way. We have that awful image of the nails actually being driven into Christ’s hand. But that also in itself seems to stimulate the idea of sound – the idea of this metal hammer against the metal nail. And then other senses, with this awful dog in the foreground, who I’m sure is meant to be very fashionable but looks like a horrible shaved rat of a thing sniffing a skull. It seems like all our senses are being addressed here.
François Quiviger: Yes, absolutely, and that’s the purpose of medieval and also of Renaissance devotion – that is, to encourage people looking at paintings, in churches of course, listening to sermons, to imagine with all their senses, with all the imagination of their senses, how things happened – imagining things as if you were present.
Leah Kharibian: Very interestingly in your book you reveal that in fact modern scientific experiments have proved that empathising with a sensation fires up the same parts of the brain that the actual experience of those sensations would fire up. Is that really the case?
François Quiviger: Indeed, it’s the same, and modern science has proven that when you put some electrodes around your brain and you look at someone being hurt, the same neurons are firing, or some of the same neurons. But this, I think, we already knew intuitively. Now, thanks to the advancements of neuroscience, we can prove it scientifically and delve deeper into it.
Leah Kharibian: But do you think, finally, that the extraordinary appeal that pictures like this make to our senses, where all our senses are being addressed, is why we value Renaissance painting so very much?
François Quiviger: This is certainly a painting that speaks very directly to the mind; the way in which it uses our experience of the world to represent it, it’s obviously something to which we are much more likely to respond spontaneously than, say, abstract painting, which, let’s say, requires a different approach, a different sense of reception.
But yes, indeed, this may explain why we still react so well to Renaissance painting although we’ve lost lots of the contact around it – we’re not in a religious society any more; still, these paintings have an appeal that goes beyond the fact that they’re just simply beautiful – they represent our experience of the world.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Four, June 2010