For a biography of Joos van Cleve, see the Catalogue Entry for The Holy Family
This triptych shows a considerably abridged version of the extended narrative recounted in all four of the New Testament Gospels: Matthew 27:26–66, Mark 15:15–47, Luke 23:24–56, and John 19:16–42. (compare, for example, with Jan van Eyck’s Crucifixion
). The titulus above Christ’s head—INRI—is an abbreviation for the Latin Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum
(Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), which according to John 19:19–20 was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. The scene takes place at Golgotha, “the place of the skull,” referenced by the skull and crossed femur bones strewn in the foreground. However, the Golgotha represented here is not outside of Jerusalem. Instead, Christ hangs on a cross before a vast, open Flemish landscape in the style of Joachim Patinir, the Antwerp painter who introduced this new genre of painting in the second decade of the sixteenth century (see the Penitence of Saint Jerome Triptych
). Also departing from the traditional story, Christ suffers alone, unaccompanied by the two criminals crucified along with him at his right and left, as related by John (19:18) and Luke (23:33).
The moment represented is between the sixth and the ninth hours, when the skies darkened, and Christ took his final breath. Just before this, upon seeing his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his disciple John below, he uttered, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19: 26–27). Mary’s prayerful attitude of acceptance and John’s solicitous gesture toward her acknowledge this new relationship. A rosary hangs from the Virgin’s belt, indicating how she will perpetually commemorate her son’s sacrifice and death through her prayers. Attached to John’s belt is a black pen case and a cloth-covered book in which he will write the Gospel of John—as an eye-witness account—and the Book of Revelation. Tiny scenes in the background landscape augment the biblical narrative. At the right, hanging from a tree in the distance, is Judas, who betrayed Christ, and to the far right are figures carrying the body of Christ to the tomb beyond in a cave.
The triptych is as much about the patron who commissioned it as it is about Christ’s crucifixion. Centrally located, as a privileged participant at the event, is the donor, who is connected directly to Christ and his sacrifice for humankind through the intercession of his patron saint, who embraces the cross with his right arm while laying his left hand on the kneeling man’s head. The sword on the ground near the feet of the former is the attribute of Saint Paul, and thus also the likely the name of the donor. On the wings of the triptych, left and right respectively, are Saints John the Baptist and Catherine, and Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino. These must have been saints specifically related to and venerated by the donor. Although the saints on the right wing are depicted with their attributes, there are no accompanying scenes of their lives in the background, suggesting the painter’s lack of familiarity with them. Better known to the painter were Saints Catherine and John the Baptist, the latter for whom there are diminutive scenes of the Baptism of Christ and John preaching in the wilderness integrated into the landscape.
Without any further identifying indications, such as inscriptions or a coat of arms, and with the reverse of the wings missing (perhaps split laterally and separated from the interior paintings, their whereabouts unknown; see Technical Notes), the donor cannot be identified. However, as the saints on the right interior wing are not encountered in Flemish altarpieces and are more commonly depicted in southern European paintings, and as the triptych has a Genoese provenance in the Del Vecchio collection, it is possible that the donor was one of the large number of Italian businessmen living in Antwerp in the early sixteenth century. If the patron was from Genoa, then he apparently requested that the triptych be produced in the Antwerp style, not in the Italian style as was the case for the Santa Maria della Pace Altarpiece
of about 1525 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), made by Joos van Cleve for the Genoese merchant Niccolò Bellogio and his wife Franchiscetta for installation in their Genoese chapel (see fig. 1 above). Perhaps the donor installed The Met’s triptych in a family chapel in Antwerp before eventually taking it with him back to Genoa. According to some scholars, the altarpiece was likely installed in the Santissima Annunziata della Costa of Sestri Ponente, near Genoa (Parma 1999, pp. 13–25; Zanelli 2003; Galassi 2006, p. 179; Galassi and Zanelli 2011, pp. 77–78).The Attribution and Date:
From its earliest mention by Wilhelm von Bode (1889), this triptych has been considered a major work by the Antwerp painter Joos van Cleve (at that time known as the Master of the Death of the Virgin). Hoogewerff (1928), who believed that Joos traveled to Genoa around 1512–15, assumed that the triptych was made in that city. However, as Hand (2004, p. 57) pointed out, the majority of the Italians in Antwerp between 1488 and 1513 were Genoese and the altarpiece could well have been made there.
This triptych clearly derives from Joos’s Crucifixion Triptych
of around 1518 (Capodimonte, Naples, fig. 2), made for Marcus von Kirsch and Margriet Schats, Joos’s clients in Mechelen (Hand 2004, p. 57). Here, too, the Crucifixion is restricted to Christ on the cross with the Virgin Mary and Saint John present, along with Mary Magdalen, in this instance embracing the cross instead of Saint Paul. The donors and their patron saints populate the wings, thus slightly at a distance from the event. The Naples triptych exhibits the highly emotional demeanor of Mary Magdalen and John, which is augmented by exaggerated folds of their fluttering draperies. This mannered approach becomes more subdued in The Met triptych, indicating a slightly later date around 1520.
The very fully worked up underdrawing in The Met triptych is similar to that in the Naples triptych and typical of the artist’s preparatory sketches in other works securely attributed to him (see The Annunciation
, Virgin and Child 1982.60.47
, and Last Judgment
). As in the Naples triptych, and the large Adoration
in Dresden, the head of the donor figure is only summarily indicated in comparison with the more fully realized head of Saint Paul (fig. 3; Leeflang 2016, p. 151). Joos must have made detailed preliminary drawings of the donors on paper that he subsequently used to accurately render their physiognomy during the painting process.
Typical for a number of Joos’s paintings, although the figures were worked up fully in the underdrawing, there is very little or no perceptible underdrawing for the extended landscape (see Technical Notes; Leeflang 2015, pp. 60–63, 150–51). The background in The Met’s altarpiece wings shows no perceptible underdrawing. The central panel reveals minimal underdrawing for the landscape features of the foreground, a suggestion for the path at the right going into the distance, some vague outlines for the rocky outcroppings, and the darkening clouds with a crescent moon (that ultimately was not painted) in the sky. Furthermore, the brushwork of the landscape appears to be looser and more broadly handled than that of the figures. As Weale and Salinger (1947, p. 134) were the first to suggest, the background must have been produced by a collaborator. Quite likely, model drawings were used for the similar buildings and rocky mountains that populate the backgrounds of this and a number of Joos’s other paintings. The landscapes of The Met Crucifixion Triptych
and the Virgin and Child 1982.60.47
appear to have been painted by the same specialist, who might have been a member of Joos’s workshop, part of another atelier, or even an independent master who specialized in this genre of painting.
In terms of the general structure of the bird’s-eye-view landscape and the motifs of buildings, farmhouses, rocky outcroppings, and trees, the works of Joachim Patinir, Antwerp’s premier landscape painter, were highly influential. Patinir joined the Antwerp painter’s Guild of Saint Luke in 1515, and thereafter his new landscape style became extremely popular locally as well as abroad. In at least four of twelve of Patinir’s best works, the figures were painted by a collaborator. Interestingly, Karel van Mander wrote in his Het Schilder-boeck
of 1603–4 that a “fine painting of Mary” by Joos van Cleve includes “a very beautiful landscape by Joachim Patinir.” However, what could be called a “prestige collaboration” between Van Cleve and Patinir is not the case in The Met’s triptych. In a comparison with Patinir’s Penitence of Saint Jerome Triptych
, for example, Joos’s landscape exhibits a lower horizon line that limits the far reach into the distance. Furthermore, as Hand has noted, Patinir’s landscapes have a certain “crystalline clarity” to them, while the background of The Met’s Crucifixion
is rapidly and loosely painted (Hand 2004, p. 57). Instead of Patinir’s seemingly airless environment, the Crucifixion
conveys a sense of atmosphere, particularly in the far distance, which appears to be enfolded by a blueish-white haze. Such an adaptation of Patinir’s signature style was clearly in vogue at the time. Perhaps the client asked for this type of background landscape. Alternatively, as a clever entrepreneurial strategy, Joos van Cleve may have recognized the value of including it.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2022
 The suggestion made by Cécile Scailliérez that the donor is Paolo di Negro from Genoa is unlikely. Based on the portrait of him of ca. 1518 by Adriaen Isenbrant (Bruges, Groeningemuseum), he appears quite different from The Met donor. See Galassi and Zanelli 2011, p. 70.
 Scailliérez in Paris 1991; Galassi and Zanelli 2011, pp. 77–78; Leeflang 2015, pp. 141–43.
 See also Leeflang 2015, pp. 122–26.
 See Leeflang 2015, passim
 Leeflang 2015, p. 63.
 Hand 2004, pp. 37–45; Mar Borobia in Patinir: Essays and Critical Catalogue
, Ed. Alejandro Vergara, exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2007, pp. 204–9; Hand 2011, pp. 58–59; Leeflang 2015, pp. 62–63.
 Alejandro Vergara, “Who was Patinir? What is a Patinir?” in Patinir: Essays and Critical Catalogue
, Ed. Alejandro Vergara, exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2007, p. 30.