The Crucifixion is enacted in front of the crenellated wall of the city of Jerusalem. The cross is flanked above by four fluttering angels, three of whom collect the blood that flows from the wounds in Christ’s hands and side. To the left of the Cross, the Holy Women, a compact group, support the swooning Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the Cross, caressing Christ’s feet with her hands. To the right of the Cross stand Saint John the Evangelist, in profile, and a group of soldiers with the centurion in the middle, distinguished by a halo, who recognizes the Son of God in Jesus. The painting’s small size, arched shape, and composition suggest that it originally belonged to a portable altarpiece, of which it formed the central panel’s upper tier [fig. 1]. The hypothesis was first advanced by Evelyn Sandberg-Vavalà (originally drafted 1939, published 1969), who based it on stylistic, compositional, and iconographic affinities between a small triptych now in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma [fig. 2] and a series of small panels now in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts [fig. 3]. Sandberg-Vavalà recognized the latter as fragments of the shutters of a triptych [fig. 4] very similar to the one now in Parma. Thus, as in the example at Parma, the dismantled triptych would have represented on the exterior Saints Christopher and Blaise ([fig. 1], panels a and e). When opened, the left shutter would have shown Saints Michael Archangel and John the Baptist at the top, and in the lower register Saints George and Francis; the Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene would have appeared at the top of the right shutter, and below it Saints Barbara and Anthony Abbot (in the Parma triptych, the place of Saint Barbara is taken by Saint Ursula). The Washington Crucifixion therefore may be assumed to have formed part of the centerpiece of a triptych, probably placed, as at Parma, above an image of the Madonna and Child. The measurements of the fragments would seem to confirm that the painting in the National Gallery of Art and the fragments in Worcester belonged to the same altarpiece. Other scholars later independently proposed the same conjectural reconstruction of the complex. It was further developed by the suggestion that it could be completed with the triangular gable panels depicting the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Annunciate now in the J. Paul Getty Museum at Los Angeles [fig. 5], and with the Madonna and Child now in the Musée du Petit Palais at Avignon [fig. 6], proposed as the lower register of the central panel of which our Crucifixion formed the upper part. Not all authorities have found these proposals convincing, and some have rejected them, but at least the common origin of the panels now in Avignon, Washington, and Worcester seems quite plausible.
As for the hand that painted the panel in Washington, apart from the first tentative attributions to Nicoletto Semitecolo and to Lorenzo Veneziano (an artist who belonged to a younger generation and was probably a disciple of Paolo Veneziano, but someone to whom early twentieth-century art historians frequently attributed Paolo’s paintings) made during the time when it was still on the art market, Paolo’s authorship is now almost universally recognized. Uncertainties concern not so much the painting’s attribution as its chronological position in Paolo’s oeuvre. This is variously assessed depending on the chronological sequence of the master’s paintings proposed in the literature. Roberto Longhi, followed by many, argued for an execution toward the middle of the fourteenth century, but other art historians have preferred an earlier dating, proposing the 1340s, the years around 1340, the fourth, or even the third decade. In the absence of secure points of reference, it may be assumed that the panel in the National Gallery of Art should precede the polyptych with the Crucifixion and saints now in the Museum of the Cathedral of Rab, or the painted cross in the church of Saint Dominic at Dubrovnik (both in Croatia), works generally and convincingly dated after the mid-fourteenth century. In their conspicuous elongation of the figures’ proportions, their more realistic treatment of the anatomy of the body of Christ, their measured language of gesture and less dynamic linear rhythms, these works have undeniable affinities with paintings securely dated to the artist’s last creative phase. On the other hand, a terminus post quem for our painting can be deduced from the Crucifixion in one of the panels of polyptych no. 21 in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, a work that the more recent literature tends to place within or not long after the fourth decade of the fourteenth century. With its more animated and crowded composition and its more schematic description of the slender body of Christ, it can undoubtedly be assumed to belong to a phase preceding the Washington version of the subject.
If, as seems to me plausible, we accept that the painting discussed here belongs to the same complex of which the fragments in the Worcester Museum and the Madonna in Avignon formed part, the scope for comparisons and for formulating more precise chronological parameters is widened. The Saint Francis of the Worcester Museum seems more slender than the corresponding image of the saint in the Museo Civico in Vicenza, dated 1333, and should be later in date. Conversely, a period of some length must have elapsed between the figure of the Baptist in the Worcester Museum and that in the polyptych in the church of San Martino at Chioggia in 1349: there, the Baptist, a very tall, aristocratic personage who turns with timorous discretion to the Christ child on his mother’s knee in the central panel, reveals characteristics rather different from those of the Worcester Baptist. The slight hanchement of the Worcester Saint George, holding his lance between his fingers with inimitable nonchalance, seems to repeat in a very similar way, though perhaps with an even more studied quest for elegance, the pose of another warrior saint, the Saint Theodore in the Pala feriale of 1343–1345. As for the Madonna in Avignon, the liveliness of the Christ child’s gesture, his arms outspread, and the slender figure of Mary, with her wan face and melancholic gaze, invite comparison with the panel dated 1340 in the Crespi collection in Milan and, even more persuasively, with the Madonna now in the Museo Diocesano in Cesena with a provenance from Carpineta, dated 1347.
To these stylistic observations we may add some comments on the iconography and costumes worn by the figures in the panels. Bearing in mind that iconographic changes may depend on the requirements of particular patrons and that their use as criteria for dating a work of art should be evaluated with a great deal of caution, I do not think it accidental that in the Madonna of Carpineta and in Paolo’s later representations of the same subject Mary is always shown with a dress sumptuously decorated with floriated motifs in gold and that the child, instead of wearing the traditional long tunic, is represented nude (even if draped in a mantle) or is shown wearing a transparent chemise that leaves his legs exposed. This motif, of Byzantine origin, soon spread in Tuscan painting, but it apparently enjoyed less success, or made less rapid headway, in northern Italy. Rare in Venetian paintings of the early fourteenth century, it is still not present in Paolo’s Crespi Madonna (1340), though it appears in his later works and also in the panel of the Madonna in Avignon. The conclusion that the triptych in question might have been executed within the 1340s seems further corroborated by the costume of Saint Barbara in Worcester. Her dress is characterized by a conspicuous manicottolo (a long sleeve whose upper fitted part reaches down to the elbow, where it sharply widens and then hangs down in a loose flap to the mid-thigh). This dernier cri of fourteenth-century court dress, a fashion by no means confined to ladies, appears here in a less evolved form than in the dresses that adorn the Saint Ursula of the polyptych of San Severino Marche (1358) or the Dancing Salome in the mosaic of the baptistery of San Marco (c. 1350), but in a far wider (and presumably later) variant than in the elegant dresses of the female saints depicted in the laterals of the triptych of Saint Clare in the Museo Civico of Trieste, executed by Paolo within the third decade. From the sum of these observations, it seems possible to deduce that the triptych of which the Washington Crucifixion formed part should date to the early 1340s, soon after the triptych in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, which it follows in composition and, in large part, iconography.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016