So last weekend in the Christian calendar was fairly important. Forgetting our waistlines and piles of multi-coloured foil Easter egg wrappers, Easter above all commemorates Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. As you can imagine, these two moments feature quite a lot in Art History. There are countless images that display the Son of God on the Cross and they all look the same, right?… Well, not exactly.
Paintings of the Crucifixion will of course always depict Jesus, arms wide, nailed to a wooden cross. But there are, would you believe it, many different ways this scene has been composed. Artists explored various ways to approach this subject to create a deep religious interaction with the viewer as well as to distinguish their painting from the myriad of other crucifixion images.
Think – how do you represent a subject that has already been painted time and time again so that yours is better, more memorable and ultimately, pleasing to the patron paying you to paint it.
Now, I can’t possibly examine every single painting of the Crucifixion (it may become a little morbid if anything) so how about we focus on one?… Let me introduce you to Tintoretto who painted The Crucifixion in Venice in 1565 for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.
The Crucifixion is in a side room, the Sala dell’Albergo, just off the central hall on the first floor of the building. It was one of the most important rooms in the building, functioning as a meeting room for the governing body of the Scuola.
First thing you notice as you step though the doors of this room is: the sheer size of the painting.
Tintoretto’s Crucifixion is huge. Measuring 536 x 1224 cm, the canvas fills the door way as you enter and the figures are almost life-size. In the centre, the crucified Christ towers above you and would have literally looked over the men who discussed and decided important issues regarding the Scuola all those years ago.
The whole scene is chaos. There are people everywhere. Men on horseback are scattered amongst a busy crowd that engulfs the scene. Christ, silhouetted against the stormy clouds behind, rises above it all. It is, at first, a little difficult to take in but Tintoretto has carefully organised this composition and placed little groups of figures, each of which all have their own part to play.
Let us focus on the two crosses either side of Christ. The one on the right is still flat on the ground whilst the criminal is being bound by ropes. He struggles and sits upright, perhaps making a last attempt to avoid his fate. On the left, the cross is half-raised and the criminal gazes towards Christ as he is slowly heaved upright. We can see the effort the men put into lifting the cross – some push it up from their shoulders whilst others put their weight into pulling back on the ropes. These two mini-scenes help us to imagine what Christ, already in position and upright, has just gone through. It’s as if Tintoretto is showing you three stages of the actual crucifixion process, from start to finish.
Just behind Christ, there is a ladder leaning against the back of the cross. A man level to Christ’s feet, leans down to pick up the stick on the end of which is the sponge soaked in wine that was offered to Jesus in his last hours. This indicates a critical point in the whole event when Christ, who has been up there a while, refuses the wine and soon dies.
Notice the group at the base of Christ’s cross. Here we see Mary fainting from seeing her son strung up high. She is surrounded by others who mourn for the death of Christ. Just to the right of them you see two men huddled under the rock – these are the two soldiers who threw dice to barter for Christ’s clothes. Just in front of them, a man digs a hole in the ground to make ready the place where the third cross shall stand.
Along the foreground you can see tools used to hammer the nails to the cross together with armour, discarded by soldiers, hot and sweaty from the hard labour. There is a ladder on the left that lies out towards the viewer, inviting us to climb inside the painting and witness the scene for ourselves.
The horses stamp at the ground, people point, weep and wail, jeer and shout. The whole scene is alive with drama and emotion – your eye never stops moving around the canvas.
This is arguably the most significant event in Christ’s life, that he was brought to Earth to die for our sins. Little wonder then, that everything is chaos.
Tintoretto was one for dramatic flare and this painting is no exception. With every single figure being involved in an action within the scene, Tintoretto has also interlaced sharp, diagonal lines throughout the composition which lead to the centre. Notice the angle of the ropes on the left or the ladder below, together with the semi-upright cross. The other cross on the ground slopes towards Christ and enhances the natural sloping of the landscape behind. Two silhouetted figures in the crowd at the back also help bring our attention to the centre: one man points to Christ and another, riding a horse, leans in over his saddle with a taught rope in hand.
The whole painting is a balance between the calm seen in Christ and the chaos around him and between the carefull positioning of the figures within the frantic movement. Ultimately it addresses the balance between life and death as Christ slowly weakens and succumbs to death.
So this painting isn’t just ‘any crucifixion’, but The Crucifixion. It grabs your attention and almost has you gruffly by the collar and against the wall. There is no escaping it. It is loud, big and bold. If you’re ever in Venice – it’s worth a visit!