This picture is unusual in Italian painting of this period in showing so much detail from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s crucifixion in one relatively small panel. Such images were usually reserved for large wall paintings. Christ is shown on the Cross between the two thieves who were crucified with him. Below, the Virgin Mary collapsing in grief is supported by Mary Magdalene, recognisable by her red robes and long red hair. Saint John the Evangelist stands slightly apart from them, raising his hand to his face in grief.
Saints Benedict and Bernard, the founders of the Cistercian Order, flank the Virgin and Child in the roundels below the main scene. The prominent position of women in the scene – particularly Mary Magdalene – and the inclusion of two female saints in the roundels indicates that the original location may have been a nunnery. This was possibly Santa Maria Maddalena di Cestello, the Cistercian nunnery dedicated to Mary Magdalene in Florence.
This painting is unusual in Italian painting of this period in showing so much detail from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s crucifixion in one relatively small panel. These kind of images were usually reserved for fresco paintings that decorated large walls. Jacopo di Cione may have used Andrea da Firenze’s fresco showing the Crucifixion in the chapter house of the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, completed in 1368, as a model.
Christ is shown on the Cross between the two thieves who were crucified with him. On the right is the thief who, according to the Bible, mocked Christ. He is tormented by two devils – they hold a brazier, representing hell, over his head. On the left is ‘the good thief’, shown with a halo, who believed in Christ; two angels take his soul, represented as a small baby, to heaven. Christ’s blood is gathered in chalices by angels.
One man raises a stick with a vinegar-soaked sponge intended to quench Christ’s thirst, an incident mentioned in all the Gospels apart from Luke. Between the crosses, Roman soldiers on horseback guard the site, their spears raised. One of them, to the right of Christ, has a blue polygonal halo. He is probably the centurion mentioned in the Gospel of Luke who recognised Christ as the Son of God.
In the foreground a vast crowd is gathered. To the left, soldiers draw straws for Christ’s clothes, as mentioned in the Gospel of John; others cluster at the far right, behind a group of priests or Pharisees. The central group shows the Virgin Mary collapsing in grief and supported by Saint Mary Magdalene, recognisable by her red robes and long red hair. Saint John the Evangelist stands slightly apart from them, raising his hand to his face in grief.
The painting is an adaptation of the standard format of a polyptych, although much smaller. The central image is flanked by two sets of full-length saints stacked on top of each other, like pilaster saints (standing figures which decorated the pilasters – supporting piers – of large-scale altarpieces). The lowest edge consists of four half-length figures of saints surrounding a central image of the Virgin and Child, painted in roundels. This layer stands in for the predella which ran along the bottom of polyptychs. The entire construction is framed by decorative pilasters and crowned with a canopy known as a baldachin. This resembles the vaults of a fourteenth-century church and, like those, it is painted blue with gold stars to represent heaven.
Clues within the picture suggest that it might have been made for a Cistercian nunnery: Saints Benedict and Bernard, the founders of the Cistercian Order, flank the Virgin and Child in the predella. The prominent position of women in the scene, particularly Mary Magdalene, and the inclusion of two female saints in the predella indicates that the original location may have been a nunnery. The likely candidate seems to be Santa Maria Maddalena di Cestello, the Cistercian nunnery dedicated to Mary Magdalene in Florence. The painting might have sat upon the high altar there, which was flanked by chapels dedicated to Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard, or possibly in the chapter house, where scenes of the Crucifixion were traditionally found.
A little black hog peeks out from next to Saint Bernard – it’s a later addition, perhaps intended to transform him into Saint Anthony, who is often shown accompanied by the creature.
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