This painting of the Crucifixion by
The deep, saturated hues of red, yellow, and blue create rhythmic alternations of color that play against the gold backgrounds and halos to animate the scenes. Such dazzling effects accentuate the dramatic gestures of the figures, whose robust, naturalistic forms are carefully organized to express compelling human emotion and facilitate narrative legibility. The exquisite miniaturist quality of execution, dynamic use of space, and construction of depth exemplify a skillful conflation of elements derived from the previous generation of Sienese painters, particularly
Flanking panels of the
This highly detailed panel from a
The altarpiece’s left wing contains several episodes presented in a continuous narrative. In the middle ground, Christ kneels in prayer above a well-tended garden on the Mount of Olives. With his arms folded across his chest in a gesture of humility, he gazes heavenward toward a descending angel who holds out a chalice. The chalice here evidently refers to Christ’s supplication: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” i.e., his imminent sacrifice upon the cross.
Matthew 26:39. Gertrud Schiller notes that the chalice was an Old Testament symbol of divine wrath, but since it is tied to the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper it may also be considered the cup of Christ’s sacrifice. See Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman, 2 vols. (Greenwich, 1971–1972), 2(1972): 48, 51; as well as Victor Schmidt, unpublished article written for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, September 11, 1995, in the NGA curatorial files.
Luke 22:44: “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.”
The central panel, which depicts the Crucifixion, reflects a growing concern among fourteenth-century artists to historicize the Biblical narrative. To accomplish this, the painter attempted to recreate, with the greatest possible accuracy, the details of the events on Mount Calvary. These details, moreover, are carefully arranged to enhance the narrative legibility of what would otherwise be a chaotic scene. Already dead upon the cross, Christ is portrayed amid a large cast of characters and vignettes arranged symmetrically across the picture. On either side of Jesus are the two thieves with whom he was crucified. Groups of soldiers dressed in mail and Pharisees with long beards crowd around these figures to witness their demise. Like Christ, the thief on the left has passed away and his slumped body shares a similar greenish hue. This is the penitent thief mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (23:39–43). Having confessed to Christ as he hung on the cross, the soul of this thief (represented as an infant) is carried to heaven by angels. On the right is the unrepentant thief who taunted Jesus. His ruddy flesh tones and pained expression indicate that he continues to suffer the torments of execution. Only now does he receive the coup de grace: the breaking of his legs, which will hasten his death and relinquish his soul to the black devils that hover above him.
As in all three panels, the painted surface of the Crucifixion scene is exquisitely worked. Each figure’s physiognomy and gestures are individualized so that the two soldiers on horseback that frame Jesus, for example, respond to him in different ways. With his hands clasped in prayer, the figure on the left leans forward as if to see Christ more clearly. His lance identifies him as Longinus, the visually impaired soldier who pierced Jesus’s side and whose vision, according to one legend, was miraculously restored when the blood and water flowing from Christ’s wound fell upon his eyes.
Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1993), 1:184.
Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39.
John 19:23–24. In his Tractates on the Gospel of John, Saint Augustine interpreted the casting of lots as a positive act, for it was by way of lots, the traditional means by which one invoked a decision from God, that the seamless garment of Christ remained undivided. Likewise, it was by the will of God that the Church remained undivided. Saint Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John, trans. John W. Rettig, 5 vols. (Washington, DC, 1988–1995), 5:42–43 (tractate 118). The Bible does not reveal the winner of the garment. According to The Golden Legend, Pontius Pilate gained possession of the seamless tunic and wore it before Tiberius to subdue the Emperor’s wrath when the Emperor learned that Pilate had unjustly condemned Jesus. See Jacopo de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols. (Princeton, 1993), 1:212–213. Lynette Muir has noted several Passion plays from Northern Europe that mention Pilate as the winner of Christ’s garment. See Lynette Muir, The Biblical Drama of Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 1995), 254 n. 54. The mystery surrounding the outcome of the event has led to the discovery of several seamless garments over the centuries. The Holy Robe at the cathedral of Trier in Germany is considered the most authentic; however, at least five cities claim to possess the original. See Franz Ronig, Trier Cathedral, trans. M. Maxwell, 4th ed. (Trier, 1986), 14, 26, 29–30, 32; and Friedrich Lauchert, “Holy Coat,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 15 vols. (New York, 1907–1913), 7(1910): 400–402.
A few other examples include Andrea da Firenze’s fresco of the Crucifixion (1365–1367) in the Spanish Chapel at the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella, the Crucifixion fresco (c. 1340) by “Barna da Siena” in the collegiate church of San Gimignano,