Le Sueur shows us a moment described in Saint John’s Gospel, when Christ speaks to his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his disciple, Saint John the Evangelist, just before he dies. Opposite them kneels Mary Magdalene, her hands clasped together in prayer. Their expressions, mouths slightly open and eyes widened in disbelief as they stare up at Christ, convey tension and grief.
Behind them, darkening clouds add to the sombre mood. A strong light comes from the right, revealing the soft, pale tones of Christ’s body and the vibrancy of the figures' robes. Le Sueur creates dramatic effect by placing the figures within a narrow space, with the viewer directly in front of the Cross and level with them.
This composition was inspired by an earlier version created in Simon Vouet’s (1590–1649) studio, which is where Le Sueur had received his training. Le Sueur was developing his own style, and the way he experiments with facial expression and hand gestures to convey emotion in this painting distinguishes him from his master.
Le Sueur shows us a moment described in Saint John’s Gospel, when Christ speaks to his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his disciple, Saint John the Evangelist, just before he dies (John 19: 25–30). Opposite them kneels Mary Magdalene, her hands clasped together in prayer. Their faces, mouths slightly open and eyes widened as they stare up at Christ, express their disbelief and grief. Behind them, darkening clouds add to the sombre mood. The pale tones of Christ’s body contrast starkly with the vibrancy of the Virgin’s traditional blue robe and the Magdalen’s shimmering golden clothing, revealed by the strong light falling from the right. Despite the small size of the painting, Le Sueur creates a dramatic effect by placing the figures within a narrow space, with a rocky slope to one side. We are included in the scene, placed directly in front of the Cross and level with the figures.
Le Sueur was probably inspired by a painting on this subject by the studio of Simon Vouet, now in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Le Sueur had started working as one of Vouet’s principal assistants in 1631, and stayed with him for over ten years. Both paintings include an imaginary view of Jerusalem in the distance, but there are significant differences in the position and gestures of Saint John and the Magdalen. Le Sueur was developing his own style, and the way he experiments with facial expression and hand gestures to convey emotion in this composition distinguishes him from his master.
Another painting of this subject in the Louvre, formerly attributed to Le Sueur and now considered the work of Vouet’s studio, has a similar composition. This one is larger in size, there is no inscription on the cartellino fixed to the cross and the position of the Virgin’s head has changed. Both were probably painted during the early 1640s. During this time, La Sueur began studying the work of Nicolas Poussin and developed a new way of painting figures that was more sculptural, but retained his characteristic refined colours.
We don't know the original location and owner of the National Gallery’s painting. It was probably intended to be positioned in a chapel or private room in the home to aid prayer. During the early nineteenth century, it was placed in the Bar Convent chapel in York.
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