Pietro Lorenzetti was one of the great innovators of fourteenth-century Italian painting. In this work, he imbued the familiar biblical narrative with a new sense of pathos and dramatic intensity. He preceded Van Eyck in including such elements—the piercing of Christ’s side with a spear and breaking the legs of the thieves, the Virgin swooning into the arms of her companions, the animated discussion of the horsemen—that would ensure an emotional response from the viewer. A century later, Van Eyck added to these pictorial strategies the extraordinary naturalism of the landscape setting and distant views of mountains and rivers, replacing the gold ground of Italian painting and introducing a sense that the Crucifixion took place within the context of contemporary life.
The Artist: Together with his brother Ambrogio, Pietro Lorenzetti was one of the most innovative painters in fourteenth-century Tuscany. Both were exceptionally responsive to the work of Giotto, which Pietro encountered at Assisi, where he created a cycle of frescoes in the north transept of the lower church of San Francesco dated by most critics around 1315. In it the artist explored naturalistic effects of light for which there is no earlier precedent and an expressivity that can be found only in the work of the sculptor Giovanni Pisano, whose sculptural work for the façade of the cathedral of Siena (1284–97) must have seemed a revelation to the young painter. In Lorenzetti’s altarpiece for the pieve at Arezzo, dated 1320, he posed the figures in their individual panels so as to suggest a shared space and an ongoing dialogue. From the outset, what distinguishes his work is a desire to create an emotional response from the viewer/worshipper. At the same time, his later paintings reveal a desire to connect with the sacred world of earlier art with an emphasis on precious colors, such as lapis blue and vermilion, and the use of gold striations (chrysogony). It seems probable that he died in the great Black Death of 1348.
The Picture: The first certain notice of this picture is in June 1857, at the sale of the collection of the French painter Paul Delaroche at the Hôtel des Commissaires-Priseurs on Rue Drouot in Paris, where it was ascribed to Giotto. Delaroche may have acquired the picture when he was in Italy in 1834. The picture was first ascribed to Pietro Lorenzetti by Federico Zeri on the basis of a photograph sent to him in 1986 by the dealer from whom the Metropolitan Museum acquired the picture. It has now been established (Christiansen 2003) that the picture belonged to a series of small panels—at least four and perhaps as many as six—illustrating the Passion of Christ. At present only one other panel from the series is known: it shows Christ before Pilate (Pinacoteca Vaticana; see Additional Images, fig. 2). That picture has been excised from its frame (the engaged frame on the Metropolitan's painting is original) but, like the Crucifixion, it is on a panel the reverse of which has a simulated marble decoration (see Additional Images, figs. 1, 3). An analogy for the kind of portable, folding altarpiece to which the panel belonged is provided by a series of panels by Simone Martini painted for Cardinal Orsini. It included four scenes: The Way to Calvary (Musée du Louvre, Paris), The Crucifixion and The Deposition (both Musée des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp), and The Entombment (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The reverse sides of two of those panels are painted with a simulated marble design, while on the other two are an angel and the Virgin, so that the panels could be "folded" to form a diptych with the Annunciation. Whether something like this obtained in the present case cannot be said, but the inclusion in Pietro's series of the scene of Christ before Pilate rather than the more conventional Flagellation is unusual enough to suggest that the portable altarpiece—whether composed of four or six panels—was designed for someone or some government body with judicial responsibilities.
This is a late work by Pietro and probably dates after 1340.
As is always the case with Pietro Lorenzetti, the human dimension of the drama rather than its theological exegesis is what interests him. His point of departure was the account of the Crucifixion found in the four gospels, but also contemporary devotional literature such as the Meditations on the Life of Christ written by a thirteenth-century Franciscan and long ascribed to Saint Bonaventure. These devotional works attempted to bring the events of Christ's life close to their readers' daily lives and experience. As the author of the Meditations explains: "You must not believe that all things said and done by Him (i.e., Jesus) on which we may meditate are known to us in writing. For the sake of greater impressiveness I shall tell them to you as they occurred or as they might have occurred according to the devout belief of the imagination and the varying interpretation of the mind." This is also Pietro's approach: the Crucifixion dramatically represented in the mind of a great painter. The foreground is established by mounted soldiers at the right, while the space is defined by the angled crosses of the good and bad thieves as well as by a barren strip of Golgatha that runs upward diagonally, separating the advancing horses from the holy women. The background figures become a series of partially visible heads and helmets—except for the executioner, who strikes an energetic pose as he prepares to break the legs of the bad thief, and the pairs of mounted soldiers who punctuate the background. In a fashion typical of Pietro's understanding of human drama, figures are often paired and shown in dialogue: two querulous rabbis at the far left; the converted centurion who, mounted on his splendid horse, indicates Christ to his companion with the butt end of his mace; and the procession of horsemen in the background. (The converted centurion and Longinus are recognizable by their hexagonal rather than circular haloes, a feature Lorenzetti first introduced in his fresco of the Crucifixion in San Francesco, Siena.) The group of holy women surrounding Mary, who has collapsed in their arms, forms a clear narrative focus, with Saint John providing a touching note to their grief-stricken expressions. As a counterpoint to this affective group there is the cluster of soldiers eagerly observing the bad thief: the legs of the good thief have already been broken, and he hangs limply on the cross.
The materials used in the picture are of the highest quality and the lavish use of lapis lazuli and gold for the harnesses of the horses, for example, clearly indicates the importance of the series. The picture was cleaned in 2012 and is in exceptionally fine condition.
[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Paul Delaroche, Paris (until d. 1856; his estate sale, Hôtel des commissaires-priseurs, Paris, June 15, 1857, no. 1, as by Giotto, for Fr 365); private collection, Basel (by 1985; sold half share to Wildenstein in 1985); [Wildenstein, New York, and private collection, Basel, 1985–2002; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.
Federico Zeri. Letter to Joseph Baillio. June 16, 1986, judging from photographs, calls it an astonishingly beautiful painting by Pietro Lorenzetti.
Paul Jeromack. "Getty Buys Northumberland Raphael—Met Nets Lorenzetti." The Art Newspaper.com. 2002 [www.theartnewspaper.com/news/article.asp?idart=10234].
Keith Christiansen. "Paul Delaroche's 'Crucifixion' by Pietro Lorenzetti." Apollo, n.s., 157 (February 2003), pp. 8–14, ill. on cover (color detail), ill. p. 1 (color), color figs. 1 (obverse), 2 (reverse), states that it belongs to a portable altarpiece originally composed of four, or less possibly six, panels illustrating the Passion of Christ, of which one other panel is known, a Christ before Pilate (Vatican Museums); dates it to the 1340s.
Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2002–2003." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 61 (Fall 2003), p. 15, ill. (color, overall and detail).
Marco Grassi. "The Metropolitan Duccio." New Criterion 23 (February 2005), p. 80.
Victor M. Schmidt. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400. Florence, 2005, pp. 45, 67 n. 64, pp. 288–89, 293, 324 n. 16, figs. 206–7 (obverse and reverse).
Keith Christiansen. "Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66 (Summer 2008), pp. 44–45, fig. 37 (color), notes that when Paul Delaroche owned the picture in the nineteenth century he ascribed it to Giotto and suggests that Delaroche identified it with a work recorded by Vasari in a monk's cell at the monastery of Camaldoli: "'a little Crucifixion with a gold background, by Giotto, that was very beautiful'"; calls this an example of "early, optimistic attributions, which were based more on wishful thinking than on real knowledge of the period".
Ada Labriola inMaestri senesi e toscani nel Lindenau-Museum di Altenburg. Ed. Miklós Boskovits and Johannes Tripps. Exh. cat., Complesso museale. Siena, 2008, p. 49 n. 14, accepts as plausible that the panel is from the same complex as the Vatican "Christ before Pilate", which she dates to the last years of the artist's activity.
Keith Christiansen inPhilippe de Montebello and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977–2008. New York, 2009, p. 36.
Dillian Gordon. The Italian Paintings Before 1400. London, 2011, p. 297 n. 15.
Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 134, no. 99, ill. pp. 87, 134 (color).