Whether you are religious or not, the ubiquitous symbol of Christ on the cross has infiltrated European culture in many ways, expanding beyond Christian ritual and iconography.
And there is perhaps no other artistic subject matter that better reflects the development of art history. The demand for depictions of the suffering Christ allowed artists to propel and shape a powerful Biblical narrative that ultimately maintained the widespread practice of Christianity.
Let's jump back through the centuries, to explore the depictions of the crucifixion found in UK collections.
Duccio (school of)
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255–before 1319) was a Sienese artist who was one of the most important painters of the Trecento (fourteenth century).
In the centre of the composition, an artist in the school of Duccio has painted Christ at the moment of his death. His head has fallen to one side revealing an expression of pain as blood runs from his hands and head. Flanking him are the two thieves who, according to the Bible, were crucified at the same time. A chorus of six angels surrounds him, bearing expressions of grief. Beneath Christ are the figures of Saint John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, who react to the news of his death.
The artist painted this tempera on wood panel sometime between 1315–1330. It is likely they completed the work inside of Duccio's large workshop in Siena, where Duccio trained other notable artists such as Ugolino di Nerio (d.1339/1349) and Simone Martini (1258–1344).
Duccio significantly took inspiration from Byzantine forms, exemplified through his use of gold leaf. However, he added a new sense of theatricalism to his religious scenes, often placing figures inside of architectural settings.
Ugolino di Nerio
Ugolino di Nerio (d.1339/1349?) painted Crucified Christ with Donors sometime between 1317–1327. Like his teacher Duccio, Di Nerio used an abundance of gold leaf. Here, he paints Christ flanked by two contemporary figures – the presumed donors – a Carmelite friar and a woman with her young son.
Donor paintings frequently appear in votive and religious works from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. They depict the real-life person who commissioned the painting, who is usually shown kneeling in the foreground in an act of pious devotion.
Giovanni di Paolo
Calvary, or Golgotha, refers to the place where Christ was crucified, just outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Giovanni di Paolo (1403–1482) also belonged to the Sienese school. Little is known about his life though we have many of his surviving works, many of which are housed in The National Gallery and in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. Di Paolo's works tend to be small, religious panels.
The artist also created an oil on panel scene, The Crucifixion (1423–1426).
Ambrogio Bergognone (circle of)
An artist closely associated with the Milanese school was Ambrogio Bergognone (c.1460–1523).
An artist in the circle of Bergognone has painted a skull at the foot of Christ's cross, referring to 'The Place of the Skull' (another term for Calvary and Golgotha) where Christ was said to have been brought in all four gospels of the Bible. Although art historians have interpreted the skull as a symbol of 'memento mori' (meaning 'remember you will die'), others have attributed the skull to Adam, who according to tradition was also buried close to Calvary. Occasionally, a skeleton is shown at the foot of Christ's cross, for example, seen in Massaccio's famous Holy Trinity (1425).
No longer using gold leaf in the background, this work shows a new kind of perspectival realism.
Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostanen (studio of)
In this Netherlandish depiction of the crucifixion, there is equal emphasis on the surrounding landscape and figures flanking the figure of Christ in the foreground, who are shown wearing contemporary dress. A woman with long red hair, Mary Magdalene, can be seen praying at Christ's feet.
Raphael (1483–1520) is one of the most famous painters of the Italian High Renaissance. Born in Urbino though spending most of his life in Rome, he led a nomadic life, roaming around the different regions of Italy. It is likely that he came into contact with the other Italian masters, Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519).
Raphael's The Mond Crucifixion, painted between 1502–1503, includes an intricately detailed landscape in the background, showing his use of perspective, which distinguishes him from artists of the Trecento. Flanking him are two angels catching his blood in chalices, as well as the figures of the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, Saint Jerome and John the Evangelist. Raphael's signature is inscribed into the foot of Christ's cross.
Angelo Nardi (studio of)
This oil on canvas was painted in the mid-seventeenth century in the studio of Agnelo Nardi (1584–1665), an Italian artist working in Spain during the early-Baroque period. Nardi was possibly inspired by the Renaissance and Mannerist painter Paolo Veronese (1528–1588).
Again, the symbol of the skull is shown at the foot of Christ's cross. The acronym 'INRI' is shown above Christ's head, which represents the Latin inscription meaning 'Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.'
Rembrandt van Rijn
Netherlandish artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) painted The Lamentation over the Dead Christ in 1635. Contrasting to typical scenes depicting the moment of crucifixion, in art history, a 'lamentation' scene shows Christ's body being brought down from the cross, and the moment his followers mourn over his body.
According to The National Gallery, this monochrome oil sketch, known as a 'grisaille', was probably made for an etching which was not executed.
Charles Le Brun
Housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, this Baroque-style painting by prolific French artist Charles Le Brun (1619–1690) shows the moment after Christ's death when he is being taken down from the cross.
Charles Le Brun was the court painter of Louis XIV.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo's (1727–1804) The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross is an eighteenth-century depiction of Christ's death, though it bears strong similarities to Rembrandt's Lamentation. Tiepolo may well have seen Rembrandt's version, which at the time was in possession of the British Consul, Joseph Smith (1682–1770) who lived in Venice.
In Tiepolo's version, Mary Magdalene is shown with blonde rather than red hair. In 1760, Tiepolo created a preparatory sketch for the composition with charcoal and ink.
George James Frampton
British artist and sculptor George James Frampton (1860–1928) created this stele (stone or wooden slab) of Christ on the cross with his head reclined and eyes closed in 1920. Frampton was a leading member of what was later termed the New Sculpture movement when sculpture shifted towards a higher degree of naturalism.
Taking stylistic influence from Stanley Spencer (1891–1959), painter and printmaker Michael Rothenstein (1908–1993) painted several Biblical scenes in modern dress, which added a new realist dimension to the Passion of Christ. A Jewish artist, Rothenstein painted this Crucifixion scene in 1937, at the height of the rise of Nazism and the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), perhaps serving as a visual and identifiable reminder of human cruelty.
His father was the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1862–1945).
The notorious Spanish Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) created Christ of St John of the Cross in 1951. In Dalí's unusual depiction, Christ floats over a darkened sky, reflected by a shore beneath in which a fishing boat is moored. The birds-eye perspective and composition were influenced by a drawing by Spanish mystic John of the Cross (1542–1591) who sketched Christ after claiming he saw the crucifixion in a mystical vision.
Similarly, Dalí claimed he was inspired to paint this unusual depiction of Christ after experiencing a 'cosmic dream'. By the 1940s, Dalí began to return to his religious roots, though previously he had turned away from Catholicism.
It goes without saying that the symbolic image of the crucifixion has kept artists busy for centuries. Today, despite a shift away from religious and devotional paintings, artists have continued to explore the subject – an identifiable and universally understood metaphor for martyrdom and human suffering.
Alternatively, artists have explored the image of Christ on the cross to be subversive, postmodern or to simply criticise religion, take for example Andres Serrano's Piss Christ (1987).
From an art historical perspective, portrayals of the crucifixion significantly act as historical fossils, allowing us to compare artistic shifts and developments across centuries.
Lydia Figes, Content Creator at Art UK
- Though disputed, the etymology of the expression 'touch wood' derives from the Christian relics of the cross
- The image of Christ on the cross actually emerged before the time of Christ and was used in Pagan iconography
- One of the earliest depictions of the dead Christ in Western art history is the Gero Cross (965–970). It is displayed in Cologne Cathedral in Germany