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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Crucifixion and Passion of Christ in Italian Painting

The Passion narrative, which relates the events of Christ’s last week on earth, was a constant focus in Italian painting. Formidable traditions governed the representation of the Crucifixion and other Passion scenes, and yet Italian painters continually renewed them through creative engagement with established conventions. Unlike the stories associated with Christ’s birth, the episodes of the Passion are colored by painful emotions, such as guilt, intense pity, and grief, and artists often worked to make the viewer share these feelings. In this, they supported the work of contemporary theologians, who urged the faithful to identify with Christ in his sufferings that they might also hope to share his exaltation.

According to the Gospels, the death of Christ occurred in Jerusalem, where he had gone to celebrate the feast of Passover with his disciples. The early events of this week were memorably depicted in Italian picture cycles dating back to the Middle Ages. Particularly important was Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, where he broke bread and shared wine in anticipation of his death and so instituted the Christian ritual of communion. As portrayed in a predella panel by Ugolino da Nerio (1975.1.7), a table is placed parallel to the picture plane, with the disciples arranged along the two long sides and Christ at one end, at the extreme left edge of the composition. The perspective offers a clear view of the articles on the table top as well as the distinctive face and gesture of each disciple. The image is full of anecdotal vividness, but it does not emphasize the sacramental future of the event. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the connection between the Eucharist and the Last Supper was more clearly drawn in art, and monastic communities commissioned large versions of the scene to adorn refectory walls. The famous Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan represents the culmination of this tradition, as well as a compositional formula very different to that of Ugolino: the table takes its old orientation and shape, but Christ sits in the center, facing the viewer, and the disciples are all arrayed on the same side of the table.

The climactic moment of the Passion story is the Crucifixion itself. Paintings of the subject were usually intended to foster meditation on Christ’s self-sacrifice, and they thus indicate his suffering by showing him hanging heavily with bowed head and bleeding wounds. The figure of Christ is rarely distorted, however, and his state of undress often reveals an idealized body based on classical models. A crowd of other figures typically surrounds the cross, and they are frequently notable for their expressiveness. As depicted on a small altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, Christ is crucified between the two thieves mentioned in some of the Gospels, while the Virgin Mary swoons piteously in the foreground and a host of figures, some in oriental dress and some in Roman armor, take part in the execution or gaze at Christ as though he has somehow stirred them (2002.436). Fra Angelico’s small panel of around 1420 (43.98.5) includes many of the same elements, but sets them within a more methodically constructed space. This change reflects a shift in style, but it also imbues the scene with enhanced reality, which in turn makes the scene more accessible to pious meditation. In addition, Fra Angelico magnifies the emotional responses of the figures around Christ’s solitary cross: the Virgin Mary falls to the ground, Saint John clasps his hands intensely, Mary Magdalene reaches out in a sharply foreshortened view, angels lament against the gold ground of the sky, and the semicircle of onlookers assume carefully varied attitudes of indifference, pity, or wonder.

The other episodes in the Passion may best be understood in relation to the Crucifixion itself, and many painted versions were part of narrative series that allowed the faithful to trace the stages of the story. Raphael’s small panel of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, for example, comes from such a sequence in a predella (32.130.1). The form of the scene, with its soft landscape and central tree, anticipates the cruel reversals of the Crucifixion, and the scene’s tranquility points a striking contrast with the anguish of the event, for this is the moment when Christ prays for release from the ordeal that he is about to suffer. The arrest of Christ just after his prayer is among the most dramatic in the Passion narrative. The version painted by Bartolomeo di Tomasso in another predella panel displays the unsettling mix of gentleness and violence in the episode, as Judas, Jesus’ disciple, greets him with a kiss meant to betray him to a band of armed men (58.87.1).

In later Italian art, scenes from the Passion were often made the focus of large independent pictures, and this approach presented new possibilities for artists as well as for pious observers. In the spirit of the Counter-Reformation, painters worked to involve the emotions in meditation on Christ’s suffering and death. El Greco’s painting of Christ carrying the cross (1975.1.145), for example, dispenses with details of narrative and setting and so forces the viewer into direct engagement with the body of Christ. A very different but no less powerful effect results from Ludovico Carracci’s striking scene of lamentation over Christ’s corpse (2000.68), which is shown with uncompromising realism at close proximity to the viewer. Moretto da Brescia’s vision of Christ lowered into the tomb (12.61) displays the strength of artistic tradition in the service of emotional effect: at the center is a Pietà, an image of the dead Christ cradled by his mother, and the compressed arrangement and magnificent costumes of the figures both display the artist’s skill and stress the scene’s reality. The Jesuit order, established in 1548, keenly promoted the devotional value of pictures of the Passion, and Scipione Pulzone’s Lamentation (1984.74), which shows Christ’s body removed from the cross and cradled by grieving followers, is one example.

According to resolutions agreed at the Council of Trent in 1563, the Catholic Church reaffirmed the value of images in Christian devotion and the importance of the emotions in religious experience. These decisions guaranteed that the Church would continue to generate commissions for Italian painters, and that the life of Christ would retain its importance in art. Even when artists were free to choose their own subjects, however, they often returned to the life of Christ. A large canvas by Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese), for instance, depicts the moment when the Roman official Pontius Pilate, having just questioned Jesus, washes his hands and so denies his role in executing him (1978.402). The painting was not commissioned for a church, and yet Preti takes his subject from Christ’s life and uses an unconventional theme from the Passion to explore complex effects of shadow and light as well as the enigma of Pilate’s position.