This altarpiece is one of Raphael’s earliest works. It was commissioned by the wool merchant and banker Domenico Gavari for his burial chapel dedicated to Saint Jerome in the church of S. Domenico in Città di Castello, Umbria.
Christ’s body is suspended from the Cross. Two angels balance on delicate slivers of cloud on either side, collecting the blood that drips from his wounds in golden chalices reminiscent of those in which wine would be served during Mass at the altar below.
The sun and moon appear simultaneously in the sky, symbolising the eclipse that coincided with Christ’s death. Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene appear at the foot of the Cross and gaze up at Christ’s body with reverence and pity. The Virgin, robed in purplish black to denote mourning, stands to the left of the Cross and John the Evangelist to the right. They both look at the viewer and wring their hands in grief.
This altarpiece is one of Raphael’s earliest works. It is known as the ‘Mond Crucifixion’ after Dr Ludwig Mond (1839–1909) who bequeathed it to the National Gallery in 1924. It was commissioned by the wool merchant and banker Domenico Gavari for his burial chapel in the church of S. Domenico in Città di Castello, Umbria.
It was in Umbria that Raphael produced his earliest documented works – three altarpieces and a banner for a confraternity – although it is likely he was living in Perugia at the time. This was the second of the altarpieces he painted. The Latin inscription on the stone frame, still in the church, translates as ‘Domenico di Tommaso Gavari had this work made 1503’. Gavari was a close friend of Andrea Baronci, for whom Raphael painted the Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Altarpiece for the church of S. Agostino, also in Città di Castello. Raphael probably received the commission through this connection. When Baronci’s widow made Gavari her heir in 1512, her will was witnessed in front of Raphael’s ‘altar of the Crucifix’.
The body of Christ is suspended from the Cross, which is surmounted with the inscription ‘I.N.R.I.’, which stands for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’). Two angels with scrolling ribbons at their waists balance on delicate slivers of cloud either side of Christ. They collect the blood that drips from his wounds in golden chalices reminiscent of those in which wine would be served during Mass at the altar below. The promise of resurrection offered through the Eucharist was an appropriate subject for a funerary chapel where mass would have been said for Gavari’s soul. The inclusion of the chalices is also fitting as Gavari left money in his early wills to furnish every chapel he endowed with new chalices.
The Cross is placed on a brown foreground stage which is set against a view of the Umbrian landscape with Città di Castello in the distance. The sun and moon appear simultaneously in the sky, symbolising the eclipse that coincided with Christ’s death. Raphael used silver leaf for the moon and gold leaf for the sun. Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene appear at the foot of the Cross and gaze up at Christ’s body with reverence and pity, providing an example for the worshippers at the altar. A drawing that seems to have been a study for the figure of Mary Magdalene is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The Virgin Mary, robed in purplish black to denote mourning, stands to the left of the Cross and John the Evangelist stands to the right. They both look at the viewer and wring their hands in grief.
Saint Jerome was not present at the Crucifixion but is included in this scene because the chapel was dedicated to him. He gestures to the Cross and holds the stone with which he beat his breast while living as a hermit in the wilderness. The miracles that happened after his death were painted in scenes of the predella (the lower painted panel displayed beneath the main panel of the altarpiece). Two predella panels survive in the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Originally there was probably at least one additional panel. Gavari himself may have chosen to dedicate the altar to Saint Jerome as he also named his first-born son Girolamo (Jerome in Italian).
The altarpiece is strongly influenced by Perugino, the leading artist of central Italy at the time, with whom Raphael developed a close artistic relationship while living in Perugia. The overall design is based on several versions of the crucified Christ in a landscape painted by Perugino in the late 1480s and 1490s, and is especially similar to his altarpiece of the Crucifixion for the convent of S. Francesco al Monte in Perugia, commissioned 1502 and completed 1506. In that painting angels with fluttering ribbons hold chalices to catch the blood from Christ’s wounds, the Virgin and the Evangelist are almost identical to Raphael’s and Mary Magdalene is in the same pose in reverse on the other side of the Cross. It’s likely that Raphael was able to view Perugino’s works in his workshop in Perugia before they were unveiled. As well as adopting the sweet, small-featured oval faces and stylised hand gestures of Perugino’s figures, Raphael took the principles of symmetry, harmony and clarity of composition from Perugino’s works. However, Raphael adapted them to his own style, endowing them with greater softness and sophistication. In this case, however, it is not entirely clear who copied whose work.
In Raphael’s early works he usually based his compositions on a simple geometric grid, which he incised on the panel to help him transfer his drawing, as evident in the Ansidei Madonna. No such incised grid is visible in the Mond Crucifixion, although the strong symmetry and geometrical structure of the picture suggest that Raphael may have used a similar method to initially set out his composition. He used a ruler and compass to incise the outline of the Crucifix, and compasses to incise the sun and moon. The way in which he left unpainted spaces for the figures and made no revisions or changes while painting suggests that he was working from a carefully prepared design in a detailed drawing. During this period Raphael frequently used dark hatched brushstrokes to reinforce areas of shadow – a technique derived from Perugino – and particularly noticeable here in the draperies. Raphael also used his hands and fingers to blot and model wet surface paint. His fingerprints and palm prints are visible in the shadows of the heads, especially in Christ’s hair, face and beard.
Raphael scratched through the brown paint at the foot of the Cross to a layer of silver leaf beneath to sign the painting: RAPHAEL / VRBIN / AS /.P.[INXIT] (‘Raphael of Urbino painted this’). Vasari famously commented that if Raphael had not signed the painting, no one would have believed that he and not Perugino had painted it.
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