The central panel of this triptych (a painting made up of three sections) shows the crucified Christ. Angels cover their eyes unable to bear the sight as they gather the blood from his wounds in chalices, which resemble those which hold the wine of the Eucharist, drunk at Mass. The fainting Virgin Mary is supported by two women, and Christ’s so-called ‘beloved’ disciple, often thought to be John the Evangelist, wrings his hands in grief.
The figure who wraps his arms around the base of the Cross is a thirteenth-century saint, Francis. His prayer was so intense that he had a vision of Christ on the Cross and at that moment received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) in his hands and feet; his bleeding feet are apparent here. The triptych was once at a church in Aquila, in eastern Italy, that was dedicated to Saint Clare, who founded an order of Franciscan nuns.
The central panel of this triptych shows the crucified Christ. The scene is portrayed dramatically, emphasising Christ’s pain and suffering: his eyes are rolled back and his mouth is open in agony. Angels – some covering their eyes unable to bear the sight – gather the blood from his wounds in chalices resembling those which hold the wine of the Eucharist, drunk at Mass. Their emotion is echoed by the Virgin Mary, who is supported by two other women as she faints below the Cross, and by Christ’s so-called ‘beloved’ disciple, often thought to be John the Evangelist, who wrings his hands in a traditional expression of grief.
From the wounds in his feet, we can tell that the figure who wraps his arms around the base of the Cross is Saint Francis. Francis lived in the thirteenth century but he is shown here because of his practice of prayer in which he contemplated Christ’s suffering on the Cross. His prayer was so intense that he had a vision of Christ crucified and, at that moment, received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) in his hands and feet. The saint’s presence here reinforces the devotional purpose of the painting, to enable worshippers to follow his example and to meditate upon the Crucifixion.
The two outer panels – the triptych’s ‘wings’ – show the events before and after the Crucifixion. The sequence begins in the upper left corner of the left wing with Christ’s prayer before he is arrested, known as the Agony in the Garden; Saints Peter, James and John are asleep in the foreground. In the distance Judas leads the Roman soldiers to Christ to arrest him. The scene below shows him carrying his cross to Calvary, a scene often called the Way to Calvary. The Virgin and two female disciples help Christ to carry the Cross. The upper section of the right wing shows the Resurrection, while below, Christ’s mother and disciples mourn over his dead body.
Triptychs like this were portable altarpieces which could be used for devotion wherever the owner might be. The reverse of its wings, which would have folded over the central panel to protect it, are painted to imitate red marble. The frame is probably original although it has been restored. The upper central part shows the monogram made popular by Saint Bernardino, a Franciscan preacher who was devoted to the name of Christ: ‘IHS’ are the initials of the Greek version of Christ’s name. The inclusion of the monogram, as well as Saint Francis, suggest that the triptych was probably made for a Franciscan. Indeed, its last recorded location was at a church in Aquila, in the mountainous Abruzzo area in eastern Italy, that was dedicated to Saint Clare, who had founded an order of Franciscan nuns.
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