Christ’s body hangs limply on the Cross; the torment of his crucifixion is almost over. He is supported in his final moments by the Virgin Mary and his disciple John the Evangelist. Antonello has composed the picture with a low viewpoint; it is as if we are looking up at a Crucifix placed upon an altar. This association is a reminder that Christ’s death would come to be celebrated by the Christian Church as an act of salvation.
Our picture owes some debt to Netherlandish versions of this subject by Jan van Eyck and other painters, which were usually also painted on a small scale, with Christ’s slender body isolated high above the figures below and in front of a broad landscape background. Antonello has simplified the image – excluding any detail from the biblical narrative – to focus upon Christ’s sacrifice and suffering.
Christ’s body hangs limply on the Cross, his head bowed and his eyes closed. A trickle of congealing blood seeps from the wound at his right rib. Just beyond the Cross, in the distance, we can see the figures of the Three Marys, Christ’s female followers, on their way home, leaving only the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist to support Christ in his final moments.
Mary – whose figure is the best preserved part of the picture, the surface of which is badly abraded (rubbed) – kneels before the Cross. Resting her hands on her knees, palms down and eyes closed, her whole body seems to be sinking into the ground: she is heavy with grief, absorbed in her pain. John, on the other hand, looks up at Christ, his arms outstretched in frustration or disbelief.
Christ’s body is set against the backdrop of the sky; he no longer occupies the same physical terrain as Mary and John. Antonello has composed the picture with a low viewpoint so that we feel as though we are looking up at Christ, in the same way we might look up at a Crucifix placed upon an altar. This association is a reminder that Christ’s death was, for Christians, part of God’s plan, and that it would come to be celebrated by the Christian Church as an act of salvation.
When this picture was acquired by the National Gallery in 1884 it was framed in the shape of a narrow arch – a section had been added to the top and the upper corners had been removed. It was immediately restored to its original rectangular shape – the shape of the artist’s other Crucifixions – and the cartellino inscribed with Antonello’s signature and the date he made the painting, once on the reverse of the panel, was moved to the bottom of the picture and protected by two strips of wood on either side, added at the same time.
It was not unusual for Antonello to sign and date his pictures in this way (see for example his Christ Blessing). Like that picture, the date of this one is debated. The first three numbers of the date are legible as ‘147’, but the final number is too damaged to read. We now think the picture was made in 1475, the same year that Antonello painted a larger version of the subject (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp).
The Antwerp picture – which also includes the two thieves who were crucified alongside Christ – bears a strong resemblance to Jan van Eyck’s version now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Both scenes include lots of details taken from the biblical accounts of the Crucifixion, emphasising the very public nature of this kind of execution. Our picture owes some debt to Netherlandish versions of the subject by van Eyck and other painters, which were usually also painted on a small scale, with Christ’s slender body isolated high above the figures below and in front of broad landscape background. Antonello has simplified his composition to aid meditation upon Christ’s sacrifice and suffering.
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