Spanish School, Seventeenth Century

The Crucifixion

oil on canvas
88.8 x 60.5 cm (35 x 23⅞ in)

Provenance: Property of an Austrian noble family.

In this highly atmospheric and powerful image of The Crucifixion, night has fallen on Golgotha and the figures of Christ and two criminals are illuminated by the ghostly light of the moon. Christ is depicted in the centre of the composition, His pale quiescent body and upturned face glow in the moonlight, giving Him a serene and ethereal air. Behind Him to the right and left are two other crucified men, fully naked, writhing in agony. Their facial expressions and contorted bodies express the gruesomeness of their torture; one figure struggling to break free has lifted himself up and slung his arms over the horizontal beam of the cross. Christ maintains a stoic disregard for His suffering, and in his pose and straightened body, gives the impression of already having transcended the physical pain and humiliation of His punishment.

The desolate site of the crucifixion is called Golgotha, an Aramaic word meaning ‘the skull’ the Latin form of which is Calvary. The appropriately named execution ground is littered with human remains. According to biblical accounts, Golgotha, although not precisely located, was supposed to be on high ground outside the city walls of Jerusalem (Mark 15:40). The area just visible in the left background, and seemingly full of tombs, may be the garden where Christ was buried, which was recorded as being near the place of crucifixion (John 19:41).

The physicality of The Crucifixion is overtly signalled and the naked limbs of the two criminals, while agonising to look at, draw attention to the sensuality of the image. The figure on the right, who appears to be in the last throws of death, evidenced by his clenched fist and the strained backward thrust of his body, appears to have reached a state of rapturous abandon through the intensity of his pain. As common criminals, crucified for their thievery, they are representative of worldly sin in contrast to Christ’s divine nature. This is signified, in part, by the loincloth, which differentiates Christ’s nudity from the criminals’ nakedness, as well as the distinction in lighting on the three figures, which has a celestial quality where it falls on Christ and a more terrestrial normality throughout the rest of the composition. ‘The nude image of the crucified Christ in art is usually kept from being overloaded with erotic suggestion by the force of its devotional meaning’ writes Ann Hollander in Seeing Through Clothes, ‘In crucifixion scenes the nudity of the two thieves, however, is often startlingly erotic by contrast, since they do not need to assume the ritual pose’.¹ This difference in presentation, exemplified in the present work, heightens the dramatic force of the image and emphasises the fundamentals of the narrative. Such a result would have satisfied Counter-Reformation doctrine regarding art, which demanded images that were instructive through their emotional content and ability to move the public.

Although the painter of the present work and its exact date are unknown, its dramatic tension, intensity of expression and highly developed form bring to mind a range of influences. In the slightly elongated forms of the figures of the two criminals flanking Christ, there can be detected hints of Mannerism. Christ’s figure however is painted with a greater degree of naturalism, however, that suggests that the artist was receptive to the Baroque style. The theatricality and religious fervour of the composition and tenebrist lighting are further hallmarks of Baroque painting, examples of which would have been available in Spain by the early 1600s through the Spanish rule of the Neapolitan kingdom, as well as through the many Spanish practitioners of the movement. The spirited brushwork and colour palette is reminiscent of El Greco’s (c.1541-1614) paintings of an earlier period, or those of his pupil Luis Tristán de Escamilla (c.1585-1624). While the artistic precedents for The Crucifixion are open to interpretation, it is evident that the spiritual fervour, emotional intensity and visual impact of the work distinguish it from other Spanish School paintings of its type.

¹ Anne Hollander, Seeing through Clothes, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993. p.182