Matthias Grünewald's The Small Crucifixion is a masterful example of the artist's ability to translate his deep spiritual faith into pictorial form. Each individual, according to Grünewald, must reexperience within himself not only the boundless joy of Christ's triumphs but also the searing pains of his crucifixion.
In order to communicate this mystical belief, Grünewald resorted to a mixture of ghastly realism and coloristic expressiveness. Silhouetted against a greenish–blue sky and illuminated by an undefined light source, Christ's emaciated frame sags limply on the cross. His twisted feet and hands, crown of thorns, agonized expression, and ragged loincloth convey the terrible physical and emotional suffering he has endured. This abject mood is intensified by the anguished expressions and demonstrative gestures of John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary, and the kneeling Mary Magdalene.
Grünewald's dissonant, eerie colors were also rooted in biblical fact. The murky sky, for instance, corresponds to Saint Luke's description of "a darkness over all the earth" at the time of the crucifixion. Grünewald, who himself witnessed a full eclipse in 1502, has re–created here the dark and rich tonalities associated with such natural phenomena.
Today, only 20 paintings by Grünewald are extant, and The Small Crucifixion is the only one in the United States.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication German Paintings of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/german-painting-fifteenth-through-seventeenth-centuries.pdf