We don't know the identity of the artist, but he painted a group of works for Franciscan patrons in and around Assisi. These include the image of Saint Francis for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, after which he is named.
He made several painted Crosses on this scale. They were probably for use in processions and originally had the same image on both sides. This one has been cut in half, probably because of damage from frequent use. It shows Christ upon the Cross, his body bowed in death. Red blood drips in neat lines from his hands and feet.
On the panel to the left is the Virgin, supported in her grief by Mary Magdalene. On the right are Saint John the Evangelist and the Roman soldier who, according to Luke’s Gospel, recognised Christ as the Son of God when he was hung on the Cross.
This painted Crucifix is one of the earliest works in our collection, but we don‘t know the artist’s identity. It has been connected to a group of works that includes a picture of Saint Francis made for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, near Assisi – so the person who made them is known as the Master of Saint Francis. He may have been a Franciscan friar because he painted so many works for that religious order.
The Crucifix has a precious, jewel-like appearance. Ultramarine, the most expensive blue pigment, has been used for the background; the rectangular terminals that punctuate its points are decorated with a gilded trellis pattern and the whole object is edged with gold borders. Its magnificence belies the horror and sorrow of the subject matter. Christ is painted as though hanging upon the Cross. His eyes are closed and his body, limp in death, sways dramatically to one side. Red blood drips from his palms, vivid against the blue background.
The panel behind Christ’s loincloth is known as the apron and here, on either side, are figures mourning his death. To the left, the Virgin Mary is supported by Mary Magdalene, who holds her firmly by the wrists to prevent her collapsing in grief. To the right is John the Evangelist, whom Christ named his ‘beloved’ disciple, with his hand on his cheek – a melancholic gesture. Behind him is a Roman soldier. He may represent the officer in the Gospel of Luke who, at the moment of Christ’s death, recognised him as the son of God. These mourning figures emphasise sorrow and grief. Such images were made to encourage meditation upon and empathy for Christ’s sufferings, a mode of prayer particularly promoted by the Franciscans.
Small painted Crucifixes like this were popular in Umbria, a region of Assisi. The workshop of the Master of Saint Francis produced several, some of which are painted with similar images on both sides, like the one in the Galleria Nazionale dell’ Umbria in Perugia. This meant that they were visible from all directions in religious processions. The wood of this Crucifix is very thin, suggesting it was split in half some time before it was purchased for the National Gallery, possibly on account of damage caused by frequent use. A restorer has repainted and regilded the side terminals, probably following the spirit of the original design.
The gold circles in the terminals and above Christ’s head were very likely topped with glass discs. The central one almost certainly contained a relic, perhaps a piece of the Cross itself, because it contains a square cavity which has been filled in. The painting was not just a representation of Christ’s death but also a precious reliquary, an object made for the preservation and display of sacred objects.
The inscriptions in the upper terminal and on either side of Christ’s head remind the worshipper of Christ’s conquest of death through the Resurrection. The Latin words at the top – which are not original, but probably a (mispelled) copy of the original text – translate as: ‘Behold this is Jesus Christ, king of the Jews, saviour of the world and our salvation, who hung for us on the tree of life.’
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