Segna di Bonaventura, from Siena, was the nephew of Duccio di Buoninsegna, that city’s leading artist. They shared a love of flowing lines, harmonious colour combinations and graceful expression of emotion.
Painted Crucifixes of this kind were common features of Italian churches in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and they would have hung high over an altar or the choir. In the mid-thirteenth century, in line with new ideas about worship that encouraged a greater emotional connection to Christ’s suffering, the image of Christ crucified changed. The pain and sorrow of his death became the focus of the representation.
Here, for example, Christ’s lifeless body hangs limply, legs drooping to one side and head slumped forward. Blood drips from the wounds on his hands and feet and sprays from his side. The viewer is invited to join the Virgin Mary and Saint John – who occupy the small panels at either end of the cross – in mourning.
This is one of the earliest pictures in the National Gallery and its largest painted Crucifix. Few paintings of this kind survive but they were common feature of church interiors in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy. They were placed on or above an altar or hung from the high screen that separated the choir from the rest of the church.
Its large size and shape meant that it would have been visible and instantly recognisable from a distance. At first sight, a viewer would notice the green tinge of Christ’s flesh and the graceful way in which his lifeless body hangs limply on the Cross; his arms are bowed,his head is slumped over his chest and his legs droop to one side.
Nearer they would see the Virgin Mary and Saint John, who was called the ‘beloved disciple’, depicted at either end of the arms of the Crucifix. Both were present at the Crucifixion. Their figures are cropped to bust-length focusing attention on their sorrowful gazes and gestures as they mourn the dead Christ. The Virgin holds her veil up to her face as though to wipe away a tear.
At this point a worshipper would be confronted with the sight of Christ’s blood dripping from the wounds in his hands and feet, where he has been nailed to the Cross, and spraying from the wound in his side. Although the image was hung quite high, they may also have seen that Christ wears a transparent loin cloth and that his mouth droops at the corners, the muscles slack and lifeless.
The inscription at the top of the Cross reads: IHS NAZARENUS, REX IUDEORUM (meaning ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’). Its presence here was perhaps supposed to make this painted Cross appear more like the one described in the Bible: the Gospel of Saint John describes how the Roman governor Pontius Pilate nailed a sign with these words to Jesus’s Cross. It is possible, however, that there was originally a circular panel with an image of Christ in a blessing gesture placed above it, crowning the entire Crucifix.
A radical shift in how Christ was depicted took place in Italian painting from the mid-thirteenth century; this Cross is an example of that change. Up until this point Christ would have appeared on such painted Crucifixes in an upright posture, looking directly at the viewers in a pose called Christus Triumphans (Christ Triumphant). The panel behind him – decorated with a repeated geometrical pattern – and those panels depicting the Virgin and Saint John would have displayed the events leading up to the Crucifixion. Here, by contrast, this boldly decorated backdrop highlights the three-dimensionality of Christ’s weak body; the poignant images of the grief of those closest to Christ invite the viewer to join them in mourning. This encouragement of an emotional response echoes new ideas about spirituality which encouraged empathy with Christ’s suffering in order to experience a closer relationship with him.
Segna di Bonaventura was the nephew of one of the most renowned painters of fourteenth-century Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna. Segna painted this Crucifix at around the same time as Duccio created his triptych depicting the Virgin and Child with Saints. Both works share graceful flowing lines and harmonious colour combinations; emotions are expressed through gesture but the overall effect is calm and restrained.
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