Jesus alone, hanging dead on the Cross, darkness over the whole earth. One can desire nothing in this picture: the grand, sweet calm of the dead face, calm and satisfied amidst all the traces of anguish, the real livid flesh, the thorough mastery with which the whole form is rendered, and the isolation of the supreme sufferer, make a picture that haunts one like a remembrance of a friend's deathbed.
George Elliot, writing about the solitary painted crucifix by Rubens in Munich.
Cited by Hugh Witemeyer, George Elliot and the Visual Arts from John W. Cross, George Eliot's Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals (1885)
The treatment of Christ in crucifixion scenes always presents his unique position.
Along with being the central figure, Christ is placed differently on the cross from the thieves. In early crucifixion scenes this meant that Christ would be nailed to the cross while the thieves would be bound to the cross by ropes with their arms behind the cross bar. His arms would be stretched out on the cross as if welcoming the faithful, while the thieves would hang more realistically and their bodies would appear contorted.
As more figures were added to the crucifixion scenes in the Middle Ages, the cross of Christ rose taller and taller, closer to the heavens.
This taller cross had a theological as well as practical reason: John 3:13-14 (NJB) "the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert." A taller cross also worked with the various treatments of nailing Christ to the cross, either nailed while on the ground or a ladder was required to nail the body to the cross.
In paintings where Christ is on a tall cross, the figure becomes isolated. Sometimes this empty space is filled with angels and cherubs, as with Raphaels’s The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels(1503) or sometimes with an enhanced loincloth. Following the trend towards showing historical realism, the angels and cherubs are ultimately eliminated.
One of the earliest examples is Antonello da Messina’s Christ Crucified (1475). A small panel painting (42 by 25.5 cm), places a plain Christ on a very tall cross. Mary sits to his right and John to his left. While showing the connection between heaven and earth, they also show a Christ more distant.
Next, the form eliminates the figures of Mary and John. This particular motif is first created by Jacopo Bellini in 1470. His son, Giovenni, continued the style. While Christ is alone on the cross, there are a number of symbolic images, such as the withered trees, that are a part of the scene. As the form of the solitary painted crucifix develops, even Rubens, who carried forward the tradition of similar symbolic references, begins to eliminate almost everything except for Christ and the cross.
With No Other People Shown, a section on the website Biblical Art on the WWW, provides a collection of images with Christ alone on the cross.
Solitary Crucifix Part 1
Continue to Part 2: Velazquez>
The Painted Solitary Crucifix
Paintings of Christ alone on the cross emerged as a significant form in the 16th century and remain extremely popular today.
These paintings are similar to the Ecce Homo or Man of Sorrows pictures of Christ alone during the passion, devotional images that became popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.(1) While solitary images of Christ encourage religious devotion between man and God, many of the modern works, such as those by Picasso and Chagall, express a secular theme of man’s suffering and the inhumanity of man to man.
Paintings of the solitary crucifix were part of the expanding market for church and private furnishings that took place after the Council of Trent (1563). After Trent, the market expanded in many different directions in order to promote Catholic orthodoxy. Paintings with fewer figures followed the need for compelling religious paintings that could be produced quickly and for less money than either multiple figured paintings or sculptures.
However, the other compelling iconographic form is the other extreme, complex and dramatic involving many figures. These scenes continued a trend of the Middle Ages and Renaissance and placed great emphasis on narrative action instead of an iconic display of Christ on the cross.
A striking early examples is The Crucifixion (1562) by Jacopa Robusti, "Tintoretta," (1518-1594), which fills an entire wall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. Within these large paintings were other crucifixion themes, such as the Raising (or Elevation) of the Cross and the Descent of the Cross, which Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) painted to great effect.
In the paintings of the solitary crucifix the traditional figures associated with the crucifixion were eliminated: Mary and John the Apostle, Mary Magdeline, the other women, the Roman soldiers, and the thieves. The traditional symbolic images, such as the skull and crossbones at the bottom of the cross, are also removed for the sake of historical realism.
In these paintings, the cross fills the pictorial space. The background changes from an azure sky, to a stormy sky, to a dark or black void. Within these forms are fluctuating elements of the image from painter to painter, whether from Northern Europe, Italy, or Spain. As noted by Gertrud Schiller, these include the variability of the posture of Christ, the position of the head, where the nails are placed and how many, and the kind of cross (often a tree instead of planed wood).(2)
The position of the head usually depicts a particular moment at the crucifixion and reflects a particular aspect of the Passion.
An upward gaze is first found with Michelangelo. While the painting has been lost his drawing for Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara (1492-1547) survives. Called Crucifix with Two Sad Angels (1541), this is one of the first realistic images of Christ alive on the cross. This position follows either Mathew 27:46 (NJB), "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" or Luke 23:46 (NJB), "Father into thy hands I commend my spirit". Guido Reni, as in his painting Crucifixion (1640), created images of the living Christ (Cristo vivo) that are popular to this day.(3)
A gaze down towards Mary is from John 18:27 (NJB) "Mother this is your son. John, there is your mother" but may also indicate that Christ is open to petitions. The leaning of the head is invariably towards the good thief to the right and away from the bad thief, a judgement even in death.(4)
Other examples are Solitary Crucified Christ (1614) by Rubens, Christ on the Cross (1632) by Velazquez, and Crucifixion (1629) by Zurbaran. These paintings are life sized, and were often a replacement or substitute for three dimensional crucifixes. (5) Instead of indicating the uniqueness of Christ in comparison with others, Christ is simply set apart. The effect of this separation is to encourage a more focused private devotion to Christ.
For example, the first exercise in The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, is:
Imagine Christ our Lord suspended on the cross before you, and converse with him in a colloquy: How is it that he, although he is the Creator, has come to make himself a human being? How is it that he has passed from eternal life to death here in time, and to die in this way for my sins? In a similar way, reflect on yourself and ask: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ? In this way too gazing on him in so pitiful a state as he hangs on the cross, speak out whatever comes to your mind.(6)
In each painting, the Christological significance of man’s salvation by the crucifixion and the backdrop as dark or a black void add to the cosmic, universal implications of the event.Continue to Part 2: Velazquez>