This arched panel was originally the top of a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) which Crivelli painted for the Franciscan church at Montefiore dell'Aso near Fermo in the Italian Marches.
Two sad, child-like angels hold up Christ’s lifeless body, one nestling his head sorrowfully against Jesus’s shoulder. Their pink cheeks and chubby arms and legs form a vivid contrast to Christ’s gaunt and greying face. The long thorns of his crown are thrust under the flesh of his forehead; holes from the nails that fixed him to the Cross gape in the backs of his hands; blood trickles down the wound in his side. The Franciscan Order was especially interested in the suffering of Christ at the Crucifixion, as meditation on the pain of the Passion was believed to lead to salvation.
This arched panel was originally the top of a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) painted for a Franciscan church at Montefiore dell‘Aso near Fermo in the Italian Marche. Two sad, child-like angels hold up Jesus’s lifeless body, one nestling his head sorrowfully against Christ’s shoulder. Their pink cheeks and chubby arms and legs form a vivid contrast to Jesus’s gaunt and greying face. His eyes are shut and his head hangs down, while his fingers contract in rigor mortis.
Crivelli has paid an almost morbid attention to the details of Christ’s body and the wounds inflicted at the Crucifixion. The long thorns of his crown are thrust under the flesh of his forehead; holes from the nails that fixed him to the Cross gape in the backs of his hands; blood trickles down the wound in his side. The hairs on his chest and around his nipples, and even the pubic hairs running down into his groin, are individually defined.
This composition, with the body of Christ flanked by grieving angels modelled on classical cherubs (known as putti) was inspired by the Florentine sculptor Donatello’s bronze relief of the subject, made for the high altar of Sant’Antonio in Padua, the city where Crivelli trained as a painter. Crivelli was skilled at exploiting the optical effects of different gold surfaces, which must have shone and flickered in the candlelight of a medieval church. Both Christ and the angels have patterns of concentric lines and flowers modelled in pastiglia in their haloes, as well as the arms of the cross in Christ’s. These would have stood out from the flat burnished gold of the background.
This way of showing Jesus dead but upright was based on a vision of the dead Christ which appeared to Pope Gregory (about 540–604) as he celebrated Mass in the church of Santa Croce in Rome. Gregory was said to have ordered a picture of this vision to be made, which became known as the ‘Imago Pietatis’ (‘image of pity’) or the Man of Sorrows. In the Middle Ages people believed that anyone who prayed before the original image or copies of it would be given an Indulgence – these allowed people to reduce the number of years they spent in purgatory – of 20,000 years. So the Man of Sorrows became one of the most popular ways of depicting Christ.
The Franciscan Order was especially interested in the suffering of Christ at the Crucifixion, as meditation on the pain of the Passion was believed to lead to salvation. The physicality of Crivelli’s depiction would have reminded the friars of Christ’s sacrifice, which was commemorated every time Mass was performed on the altar below. This image would have been at the top of the altarpiece, above a painting of the Virgin and Child. Together they would have represented the beginning and end of the drama of human salvation.
Crivelli’s signature, ‘Carolus Crivellus Venetus pinxit’ (‘Carlo Crivelli the Venetian painted (this)’), is painted as if carved into the stone balustrade. In medieval Franciscan churches, the high altar was usually raised up on a dais at the east end. It was physically and visually separated from the nave by the tramezzo screen, known as a rood screen in England, which divided the public end of the church from the stalls where the friars sat. Selling paintings was a competitive business, however, and large altarpieces like this were an important way of promoting a painter’s work. By putting his signature at the top, rather than under the Virgin and Child, Crivelli was ensuring it was visible to the widest possible public.
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