This highly detailed triptychA picture consisting of three parts. The term denotes both the object itself and its compositional form. As an object, the triptych may vary in size and material, but usually consists of a central panel flanked by wings (or shutters), which may be hinged; as a compositional form it is a tripartite structure, often with an emphasized central element. Although its imagery was, until the 19th century at least, predominantly religious, the object as such was not tied to a specific function.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press by the Sienese painter Andrea di Vanni is a recent addition to the National Gallery of Art collection. One of the most prominent works acquired from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the altarpieceAn image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history.
—Alexander Nagel, Grove Art © Oxford University Press consists of three panels depicting stories from the Passion of Christ. Attached by modern hinges, the two lateral panels can be folded over the central painting to protect it and facilitate transportation. When opened, the triptych’s panels represent, from left to right, Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo. Placed against a gold groundThe layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint., each scene is set on a rocky outcropping that extends from one panel to the next, creating a formal coherence among scenes that took place at different times and places.
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. The anguish weighing upon Christ’s countenance is physically manifested by the drops of blood that he sweats in accordance with the Gospel account. In the foreground, Jesus is represented a second time, admonishing the disciples for sleeping when he had asked them to stay awake and pray with him. His rebuke is a slight one, however, for Christ pulls Saint Peter up from the ground to signify his selection of that apostle to head his church. In the background, a group of soldiers led by torch-bearers and the traitor Judas Iscariot depart from Jerusalem to arrest Jesus. The villainy of the former apostle Judas is clearly denoted by the black halo surrounding his head.
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. The other equestrian is the Good Centurion who recognized Christ’s divinity at his crucifixion despite his debased appearance, exclaiming: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” With his hand placed over his heart, this figure’s gesture suggests that his belief must come from within. At the foot of the cross, Mary Magdalene caresses Christ’s feet as she grieves, while next to her the young Saint John weeps visibly as he stares adoringly at the Savior. In the left foreground, a group of lamenting women in vibrantly colored mantles surrounds the Virgin Mary, who has collapsed at the sight of her son’s lifeless body. To the right of these women, three soldiers grapple over Christ’s blue garment. The Gospel of John states that upon discovering that Jesus’s tunic was woven without a seam (and thus expensive), the soldiers decided to choose a new owner according to lot, rather than cut it into shares. As was common in Tuscan crucifixion scenes from this time, the soldiers draw straws rather than cast dice.