Meant to be seen from both front and back, this large Crucifix represents Jesus hanging on the Cross, but nonetheless triumphant over death: his eyes are wide open, and he wears the gold crown of the King of Heaven. Though the original church from which this image comes is not known, figures of the living Christ on the Cross are found often in Romanesque Spain. A remarkable amount of the twelfth-century paint on the figure is preserved. There are conflicting accounts about the original provenance of the Crucifix; one source attributes it to the later convent of Santa Clara at Astudillo, near Palencia, but the source is not reliable.
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Geography:Made in Castile-León, Spain
Medium:White oak with paint, gold leaf, and tin leaf (corpus); softwood with paint and tin leaf (cross)
Dimensions:Overall (cross): 102 1/2 x 81 3/4 in. (260.4 x 207.6 cm) Head: 10 1/4 x 4 in. (26 x 10.2 cm) Span of right arm: 25 3/8 in. (64.4 cm) Span of left arm: 26 5/16 in. (66.8 cm) Right foot–heel to small toe: 3 3/4 in. (9.5 cm) Right foot–heel to big toe: 9 1/8 in. (23.2 cm) Left foot–heel to small toe: 3 1/4 in. (8.3 cm) Left foot–heel to big toe: 9 in. (22.8 cm)
Credit Line:Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1935
Accession Number:35.36a, b
When it came to depicting Jesus on the Cross, many artists of the earlier Middle Ages portrayed Jesus as alive and alert, his body entirely resistant to the trauma of crucifixion. In this example, Jesus almost bears himself easily, with his torso erect, knees slightly bent, and head held high. His face betrays no hint of pain or anguish. Compared with many other contemporary and later examples that emphasize Jesus’ broken body, suffering, and death, the choice to present the figure alive and unaffected by pain might seem contradictory to showing the means of Jesus’ death. Yet there was a very powerful reason behind this artistic choice, which was to assure viewers that Jesus ultimately triumphed over death. The image affirms the belief that his death was an interlude, to be followed three days later by Resurrection. It does not linger in death, but looks forward to eternal life. For this reason, instead of the mocking crown of thorns described in the Gospel accounts of the Passion, Jesus wears the jeweled crown of a victorious king.
The crowned head, the only part of the body not held fast to the Cross by constraints, projects slightly forward. The artist seems to make the most of this limited freedom. The subtle movement of the forward-leaning head, almost an affirming nod, acknowledges the viewer. Though Jesus’ long, narrow face is expressionless, characteristic of the Romanesque style in which the sculptor worked, the head’s slight sideways tilt inquires, the large, cupped ears listen, and the wide eyes offer unbroken focus. This image is as sympathetic as it is triumphant.
Approaching life size, the figure of Jesus was carved in the round, intended to be seen from both front and back. The back of the head and hair are finished with great attention to detail, while the spinal column is indicated through an indentation and the backs of the hands are shaped. Though the specifics of its original display are unknown, it seems likely that the Crucifix would have hung suspended at the point where the church sanctuary, the domain of the clergy, met the nave, where the congregation gathered. The congregation saw the Crucifix head-on, while the clergy had greater access to the back view, which included a painted pattern on the cross itself.
Where is this Crucifix from? For decades, it was said to have come from the Convent of Santa Clara de Astudillo in the province of Palencia, Spain, though there is no documentation, medieval or modern, to support this claim. What’s more, the convent at Astudillo was founded in the 14th century, while the Crucifix is a work of the 12th. If the sculpture did end up in the convent, it was not originally made for it. That said, it does seem that the Crucifix comes from the central Spanish region of Castile-León (which includes the province of Palencia). Despite the fact that relatively few examples of Romanesque wooden sculpture survive from this part of Spain, one key comparative work supports this attribution: an ivory carving of the crucified Jesus from a mixed-media reliquary diptych made for Bishop Gundisalvo of Oviedo around 1162-74. Differences of scale and material aside, the narrow proportions of Jesus’ body, the thin rows of ribs, the articulated sternum, and the ridges outlining the kneecaps compare favorably. Both figures also wear loincloths with beaded waistbands, knotted at the center and falling in long, flat folds along the thighs. While it is not so unusual to see similarities across media, and especially between ivory and wood, which are similarly worked, a few comparable large-scale wooden examples also exist. These include a Crucifix in the church of San Cristobal, Salamanca, known as the Cristo de los Carboneros, and another in the church of San Gervasio y San Protasio in Santervás de Campo. None of these examples are located near each other, however, and the territory comprising Castile-León is sizeable. While these examples could represent the wide-ranging activity of a single sculpture workshop, it is also possible, and perhaps more likely, that these far-flung examples are survivors testifying to a broadly-deployed regional style.
The Crucifix is also remarkable for the amount of medieval paint that adheres to the carved surface. While painting sculpture was standard practice for much of the Middle Ages, many surviving examples have lost their original colors. In other situations, subsequent generations of faithful periodically repainted beloved images to freshen them up, a practice that registers changing tastes as well as doctrinal shifts over time. The Cloisters’ Crucifix was repainted multiple times, and while some of its more recent coats of paint were removed when it entered the collection in 1935, vestiges of earlier paint layers still cling to the surface.
Technical analysis initiated in 1993 and published by conservator Michele D. Marincola confirmed that the figure originally had black hair, as can still be seen, and that the skin tone was first pale with faintly rosy cheeks, the latter indicative of the figure’s vitality in the face of death. While a subsequent repainting also involved a pinkish skin tone, a still later campaign seems to have made the skin bluish. As Marincola observed, this change of color scheme indicates a dramatic shift in perspective toward a preference for representing the dead, broken Jesus. This reflects broader shifts in the portrayal of the Crucifixion in art, as a different interest in explicitly portraying Jesus’ suffering prevailed during the late medieval and early modern eras.
Marincola also noted that the sculpture’s original painting, together with the carving, also emphasized Jesus’ regal nature. The loincloth was painted dark blue with expensive, imported ultramarine, lined in red, and edged with gold. Imitation gems, both carved in relief into the surface of the wood and shaped onto it with gesso, were painted brightly. The crown displays the same gold and imitation gem treatment.
The cross itself is also distinctive because it may be the original cross made to pair with the figure of Jesus – an unusual survival, though its squared terminals have been cut off. The front of the cross is painted black, while the border is embellished with a shaped tin band that was affixed to the wood and then painted to imitate a raised gold border studded with colorful gems. Apparently a widespread technique of the period for enriching wooden sculpture, applied tin relief similarly appears on the Met’s statue of the Virgin and Child Enthroned from central France (16.32.194a, b).
In addition, traces of blue and red vine patterns embellish the back of the cross, intersecting at a central medallion depicting the Lamb of God. The now-lost squared terminals of the cross seem to have been painted with symbols of the four Evangelists, since a portion of the hindquarters of an ox, the symbol of the Evangelist Luke, is visible on the right-hand edge of the horizontal cross bar. Overall, the cross’ painted design resembles that of certain Catalan examples, such as a crucifix in the collection of the Museu Episcopal de Vic (inv. no. MEV 1609), though the dearth of Castilian examples makes it impossible to say if this painted design was as popular in central Spain.
Marincola, Michele D. "The Cloisters Romanesque Crucifix from Northern Spain: A Reconstruction and Interpretation," in Christ on the Cross: The Boston Crucifix and the Rise of Monumental Wood Sculpture, 970-1200. Ed. Shirin Fozi and Gerhard Lutz, 2020. pp. 264-81.
Rorimer, James J. "A Twelfth-Century Crucifix." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, o.s., 30, no. 12 (December 1935). pp. 36-39, fig. 1-2.
Simon, David L. "Romanesque Art in American Collections. XXI. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Part I: Spain." Gesta 23, no. 2 (1984). no. 7, pp. 157-58, fig. 11.
Little, Charles T., ed. The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500–1200. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. no. 102, pp. 222-223.
Entry by Julia Perratore, Assistant Curator, Department of Medieval Art and The Met Cloisters
[2020; adapted from draft Barnet Sculpture Catalogue]
[ Arthur and Mildred Stapley Byne, Madrid (sold 1935)]
New York. The Cloisters Museum & Gardens. "Spanish Medieval Art," December 15, 1954–January 30, 1955.
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sixty-Sixth Annual Report of the Trustees for the Fiscal Year 1935." Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 66 (1935). p. 30.
Rorimer, James J. "A Twelfth-Century Crucifix." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, o.s., 30, no. 12 (December 1935). pp. 36–39, fig. 1–2.
Rorimer, James J. "A Twelfth-Century Crucifix." Art News vol. 34 (December 28, 1935). p. 13.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sixty-Ninth Annual Report of the Trustees for the Fiscal Year 1938." Annual Report of the Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 69 (1938). p. 25.
Rorimer, James J., and Margaret B. Freeman. The Cloisters: The Building and the Collection of Mediaeval Art, in Fort Tryon Park. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1938. pp. 26–29, fig. 12.
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Rorimer, James J. The Cloisters: The Building and the Collection of Mediaeval Art in Fort Tryon Park, New York. 11th ed. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1951. pp. 28–31, fig. 13.
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Taylor, Francis Henry. Fifty Centuries of Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1954. p. 34.
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Cook, Walter W.S., José Gudiol Ricart, and Editorial Plus Ultra S. A. Pintura e imaginería románicas. Ars Hispaniae, Vol. 6. 2nd ed. Madrid, 1980. pp. 338–339, fig. 456.
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