The Virgin, face partly obscured by her vast blue cloak, places a hand on her son’s bloody wound. He is shown upright, after his crucifixion. The image of Christ displaying his wounds after death was popular in the late Middle Ages as a focus for meditation upon his suffering. The spear used to pierce his side is painted on the back of the panel, along with other tools of the Crucifixion, including a hammer and nails.
The panel was originally the left half of a pair of images hinged together, or possibly part of a triptych (an object made up of three panels). The other part shows Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene looking towards Christ in grief (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
The artist probably belonged to one of the Florentine painter Giotto’s workshops in Naples. This might have been made for Sancia, wife of the city’s ruler Robert of Anjou, whose particular focus for prayer was the body of Christ.
We see Christ after the Crucifixion, bloody and almost naked. He is shown upright after death; this might seem unusual, but this type of image was very popular in the late Middle Ages as a focus for prayer and meditation on Christ’s suffering.
His mother Mary holds his limp arm with one hand and touches his wound with the other. Blood drips down his stomach and pools in his loin cloth, only just visible but decorated with gold at its border. Christ’s eyes roll back slightly in their sockets. His muscles are drawn as simple, interconnecting shapes, with white lines highlighting his ribs and diaphragm. The Virgin and Christ’s facial features are outlined simply; they share narrow eyes, with eyelids that converge almost to a point, and a long straight nose.
Giotto, a Florentine artist, was called to Naples to work for its ruler, Robert of Anjou, in 1328. While he was there he assembled a large workshop of assistants. The painter of this panel may have worked with him on creating frescoes for the church of Santa Chiara. The angels above Christ and the Virgin are similar in pose and gesture to the mourning angels in the scene of the Lamentation of Christ in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Giotto’s most famous fresco cycle. The figures are broad and bulky, echoing the fullness of Giotto’s forms – the contour of the Virgin’s veil from head to neck leaves little definition of her neck, for example. This style might also show that the artist was more accustomed to painting in fresco, where bold shapes enabled the viewer to see the image clearly from a distance. The stark image is framed by an intricately incised border, creating a delicate, decorative effect.
The reverse is also painted, but probably not by Giotto or his workshop. The monochrome image shows the Cross of the Crucifixion, erected on a hillock. In front of it is a pot containing three nails, alongside which lies a hammer: the tools of the Crucifixion. Also shown are the spear that pierced Jesus’s side, giving him the wound he bears in the main painting.
This panel probably formed the left half of a diptych or maybe even a triptych. Another panel which probably belonged to the same object (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) shows Saint John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene grieving. Two lamenting angels swoop above, mirroring this panel.
There are two suggestions about who may have owned the picture: a friar called Fra Philip Alquier, who was the spiritual adviser to the nuns of Santa Chiara, where the painter may have worked, or the wife of Robert of Anjou, Queen Sancia of Naples. Both were known for their devotion to Christ’s sufferings. Philip is said to have bled, like Christ, from his hands, feet and side, so intense was his prayer. A letter from Sancia describes her prayerful meditations on Christ’s body. The presence of Mary Magdalene reinforces this suggestion: Fra Philip was the Guardian of the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena, which Sancia had founded for women who had formerly sold sex. Sancia also owned a relic of Mary Magdalene’s finger.
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