Christ is shown nailed to the Cross at his crucifixion, flanked by the two thieves who were crucified alongside him. His mother, the Virgin Mary, and his disciple John (known as the beloved disciple) stand at the foot of the Cross.
The panel comes from the predella, which was the lowest part of an altarpiece and usually formed of individual narrative scenes. Several others from the same series, depicting the events leading up to Christ’s death, have been identified but we do not know to which altarpiece they belonged.
The picture was once thought to be by the Florentine painter Andrea Castagno, who trained the Pollaiulolo brothers, Antonio and Piero. The broad landscape background – which has darkened over time – with a winding path or river can be found in paintings by Piero and Antonio. More recently the picture has been connected with their Florentine contemporary, Botticini, who developed this type of landscape painting to grandest effect in his altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin, also in the National Gallery’s collection.
Christ is shown nailed to the Cross at his crucifixion. He wears the crown of thorns and purple cloth that the Roman soldiers placed upon him in mockery: one of the false charges made against Christ was that he was claiming to be the ‘king of the Jews’ (Luke 23: 38). The letters INRI – the initials of the Latin phrase ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’ – are nailed to the top of the Cross.
The two thieves who were crucified alongside Christ are also shown here. According to the Gospel of Luke, one thief confessed his faith in Christ moments before his death, while the other did not (Luke 23: 39–43). The so-called ‘good thief’ is shown on the left with a halo and a calm expression, while the other looks away, still in anguish. Crimson blood streams from the wounds where the victims have been nailed to the crosses. The wound on Christ’s side was inflicted by a centurion and, according to the Gospel of John (9: 32–34), both blood and water flowed from him, symbolising his dual divine and human nature.
Christ’s mother, the Virgin Mary, and one of his disciples – probably Saint John the Evangelist, known as the beloved disciple – stand at the foot of the Cross. The positions of their hands, with Mary’s palm against her face and John’s fingers intertwined, are traditional gestures associated with mourning, and express their grief.
The panel comes from a predella, which was the lowest part of an altarpiece, usually formed of individual narrative scenes. The Last Supper (Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh) and The Resurrection (Frick Collection, New York) come from the same predella. The Flagellation (private collection) and The Capture of Christ (now lost) are also potentially from the series, which must have been a narrative of the events of the Passion.
The painting was once thought to be by the Florentine painter Andrea Castagno, who trained the Pollaiuolo brothers, Antonio and Piero. The Pollaiuolo brothers, Castagno and Botticini were all working in Florence at around the same time. The painting’s broad landscape background – which has darkened over time – with a winding path or river can also be found in Antonio’s The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and Piero’s Apollo and Daphne. The painting has most recently been thought to be by Botticini, who developed this type of landscape to most spectactular effect in his altarpiece for the poet Marco Palmieri.
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