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Renaissance Depictions of the Crucifixion

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The Renaissance was known as a period of revival or rebirth of cultural awareness and learning that took place during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and, perhaps most of all, as an era of the individual. During the Renaissance, art was a branch of knowledge – a way to showcase God and his creations, science, anatomy, discoveries and to inspire people to take pleasure in the world around them. Christian art during this period was produced to enhance the worship of saintly figures by church patrons. Paintings were used, not only to tell biblical stories, but to form an emotional connection between patrons and the church. Artists during this period strived to portray events of religious importance with high drama to make a lasting impression. One such event was the crucifixion of Christ, a subject dealt with by many Renaissance artists.

One of these artists, Tommaso di Ser Giovanni de Simone Guide Cassai, better known as Masaccio, was perhaps the first great painter of the Italian renaissance. His innovations in the use of scientific perspective inaugurated the modern era in painting. Born in San Giovanni Valdarno on December, 21, 1401, Masaccio was, to quote Libero de Liberi “the youngest of all painters who were young before, during and after him who, in his few youthful years, worked the miracle of awakening in painting, breathing life into it at least real and earthy, an urgency it had never had before.” Because he created a turning point in the history of painting with his own work and because he was later followed by numerous painters of great distinction, Masaccio is almost unanimously considered to be the “founder of renaissance art”.

One of Masaccio’s most famous works is The Trinity, which was painted between 1425 and 1428. It is an excellent example of Masaccio’s mastery of mathematical proportion in relation to scientific perspective. It consists of two levels of unequal height. Christ is represented on the top half in a coffered, barrel-vaulted chapel. On one side is the Virgin Mary, on the other, St. John. The second level, underneath the alter, is a tomb containing a skeleton, which may represent Adam. The vanishing point between the two levels, which brings both views together, is the masonry alter positioned at the eye level of the spectator. By doing this, he has created the illusion of an actual structure. His use of scientific perspective is “projected so accurately in terms of perspective principles” (Frederick Hartt.) that, when first completed, it was thought that Brunelleschi had actually done the painting, which shows us the powerful influence that Brunelleschi must have had on Masaccio.

Matthias Grünewald, the next artist whose work I liked, is considered one of the greatest German painters of his age. His works on religious themes achieve a visionary expressiveness through intense color and agitated line. Misnamed by 17th century sources, Grünewald may have originally been named Matthias, Mathias or Mathis Gothardt-Neithardt, and was born in Würzburg, perhaps in 1475. Grünewald’s achievement in the arts remains one of the most striking in the history of northern Europe. His 10 or so paintings and approximately 35 drawings that survive are jealously guarded and carefully scrutinized today. His dramatic and intensely expressive approach to his subject can best be observed in three of his paintings of the Crucifixion (in Basle, in Washington and in Karlsruhe).

Considered to be his masterpiece are the wings of the altarpiece of the Antonite monastery at Isenheim in southern Alsace, dated to 1515. There are three views of the altarpiece. The first, with the wings closed, is a Crucifixion showing a harrowingly detailed twisted and bloody figure of Christ on the cross in the center, flanked on the left by the Madonna being comforted by John and a kneeling Mary Magdalene. On the right is John the Baptist pointing to the dying Savior. At John’s feet is a lamb holding a cross, the symbol of the Lamb of God, slaughtered for man’s sins. The second view, with the wings open, reveals three scenes of celebration. The Annunciation, the Angel Concert for Madonna and Child and the Resurrection.

The third view, with the wings opened again, are displays on either side of the carved, innermost shrine two panels. They are of Saints Paul and Antony in the Desert and the Temptation of St. Antony. The Crucifixion is somber and livid, but the interior is all brilliant color and light. The final scenes of the Desert Saints are somewhat lurid and eerie, and the Temptation is a haunted vision of sin. While Grünewald was possibly a contemporary of Dürer (who was deeply influenced by the Renaissance), Grünewald seemed to ignore it in his choices for subject matter and style. From his works that still survive, it is possible to see Grünewald as one of the most powerful of all painters. He reminds us that an artist can be very great without being “progressive”, as the greatness of art does not rest in new discoveries.

Another artist, Rogier van der Weyden, was considered to be one of the most influential northern European artist’s of this time. van der Weyden was born in Tournai, Flanders in 1399 or 1400. He was know for his sensitive, deeply moving renderings of religious themes. His influence was strong and widespread and in his own lifetime, his paintings were sent all over Europe. His emotional and dramatic style found more followers than other artists, such as Jan van Eyck. Rogier showed an increasing interest in the theme of Christ’s passion in the mid 1400’s. These were characterized by cold colors, rhythmic elongated lines, elegant mannered poses of figures and by a tragic religious intensity that reached a peak in the three versions of The Crucifixion done in the 1440’s.

In one such painting, the Crucifixion Triptych, a unified landscape scene links all three panels. A rectangular gold framework design occurs in this triptych that has the Crucifixion in the middle. You see the gestures of Mary, John and the grieving angels expressing strong emotions, as does the billowing cloak of St. John and the ends of Christ’s loincloth, which swirls in the air. You also note the donors who have approached the cross. They are not to be seen as really a part of the Crucifixion scene, but present only in thought and prayer. The Crucifixion Triptych is impressive in its composition and the figures are executed to a very high standard, though they seem more abstract and graphic and less three-dimensional than those in some of Rogier’s other works. This, as with all of his religious paintings, was thought to be influenced by the writings of Thomas a Kempis, the most popular theologian of the era, who stressed the empathetic response to episodes from the lives of Mary, Christ and the Saints.

The final artist that I admired is Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico was most likely born between 1400 and 1402. For a good part of his life, he worked as an artist in the service of the Dominican Order. Eventually, Fra Angelico succeeded St. Antonine as prior of San Marco. Even before his death, he was being extolled as the “angelic painter”. He was also called Beato (blessed) Angelico, an appropriate title due to his pious life and the devotion and sincerity of his religious work. Fra Angelico was heavily influenced by Masaccio. Fra Angelico was considered one of the most important painters of his day and, through him and others, we can see the new Renaissance style emerging.

Fra Angelico’s earliest, fully Renaissance painting is his Descent from the Cross. This painting represents the first known successful Italian attempt to set a group of figures into a harmoniously receding landscape space rather than on the foreground, such as Masaccio did. In this painting, Fra Angelico presents a world in which every shape is clear, every color bright and sparkling. The figures are united by their adoration of the sacred body. In his painting, you barely notice the bruises on Christ’s torso or the blood on his forehead. You are, instead drawn to his quiet face and the light that touches his lips, eyelids, arching brows and the silky surface of his hair and beard. Descent from the Cross was considered a milestone. Until this time, no painter save Jan van Eyck could match his control of the resources of the “new naturalism” or his harmony of figure and landscape.

Using all of the advancements in the elements of art, all of these artists emotionally involved the Christian worshipper more and more with each new advancement in technique. They used high drama to bring people to the church and made the church’s doctrines real and personal, involving them directly with the events of the past and the worship of the saints. Matthias Grünewald’s achievement remains one of the most striking in the history of northern European art, though it seems that failure and confusion marked much of Grünewald’s life. His art is now often recognized as a painful and confused but always highly personal and inspired response to the turmoil of the times. Rogier van der Weyden’s art was a vehicle for transporting the Flemish style throughout Europe and his influence dominated painting in France, Germany and Spain in the second half of the 15th century. Fra Angelica was, according to all surviving evidence, the leading painter of Florence in the 1430’s. He is also credited with interpreting the conquests of Masaccio in a form that was a profound and lasting influence on Renaissance art. While all of these artists were truly great, Masaccio, despite his early death, is still looked upon as the paragon of illusion – even as a forerunner to Michelangelo. He is considered to be one of the most influential painters to date and his style was revolutionary. He played a fundamental role in the history of art and helped lay the foundations for established art today. As he himself said “I painted, and my picture was like life; I gave my figures movement, passion, soul: they breathed. Thus, all other Buonarotti taught; he learnt from me.”


Sayre, Henry M. (2003). A World of Art (Fourth Edition), Upper Saddle River, NJ, Prentice Hall.

Masaccio.it, (1/30/2003), The Life, The Genius, The Works, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.masaccio.it/html_eng/home.htm

Hartt, F., (1984), History of Italian Renaissance Art (Fourth Edition), New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

CGFA, (1/30/2003), Bio: Masaccio, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://cfga.floridaimaging.com/masaccio/masiccio_bio.htm

Web Gallery of Art, (1/30/2003), Masaccio Biography, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kfki.hu/`arthp/bio/m/masaccio/biograph.html

Bergin, T. G., Ph D, (1987), Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, New York, Facts on File Publication

Walker, P. R., (2002), The Feud That Sparked The Renaissance, New York, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Web Gallery of Art, (2/5/2003), Grünewald Biography, Retrieved February 5, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kfki.hu/`arthp/bio/g/grunewal/biograph.html

Web Gallery of Art, (2/5/2003), The Isenheim Altarpiece, Retrieved February 5, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kfki.hu/`arthp/html/g/grunewal/2isenhei/index.html

Renaissance Depictions of the Crucifixion9

Web Museum (2/5/2003), Grünewald, Matthias: The Crucifixion, Retrieved February 5, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/grunewald/crucifixion

CGFA, (2/5/2003), Bio: Matthias Grünewald, Retrieved February 5, 2003 from
the World Wide Web: http://cfga.floridaimaging.com/grunewal/grunewald_bio.htm

Web Gallery of Art, (1/30/2003), Crucifixion, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kfki.hu/`arthp/html/w/weyden/rogier/14pieta/1crucifi.html

CGFA, (1/30/2003), Bio: Rogier van der Weyden, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://cfga.floridaimaging.com/weyden/weyden_bio.htm

Web Gallery of Art, (1/30/2003), Crucifixion Triptych, Retrieved January 30, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.kfki.hu/`arthp/html/w/weyden/rogier/06crucif/0crucifi.html

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