Unknown Southern Italian School
The Crucifixion 17th Century Oil on Canvas
46 x 63cm (in frame 68 x 83cm)
The Crucifixion was recently purchased from an auction at R & J Gingell Littlejohn Auctioneers, Sliema, Malta in 2018. The exact provenance before this point remains unknown therefore it is difficult to say for certain how the painting arrived to Malta.
This sombre and morose work depicts a key story in the Catholic faith, when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was crucified by mankind. The Crucifixion represents the moment after Christ’s death and perfectly captures and expresses the various accounts found in the bible including Matthew 27:45 and John 19:34.
This graphic imagery promoted by the Catholic Church is a constant reminder of the suffering of Christ who died for the sins of mankind. Images of the crucified Christ became an important theme during the baroque period due to Roman Catholic counter-reformation efforts.
While the artist of this work remains unknown our research suggests that the work is produced in the style in the 17th century and executed by an artist of the Southern Italian School and was likely commissioned for private devotion.
The Crucifixion, by an unknown 17th century artist, is a medium-sized oil painting which depicts the dead Christ nailed to a Latin cross (fig.1). The humble size of the work does give an indication as to why it could have been commissioned. Since the work is not large enough to have been an altar painting, it is likely that The Crucifixion was commissioned by an independent patron exclusively for personal devotion rather than for a church or a public space of worship. This was commonly found in large homes and palaces which would have designated a room in the house as a personal chapel. This is further supported by the fact that the Maltese church often commissioned crucifixion scenes and sculptures to adorn the main altar or apses.1
Stylistic and iconographic analysis, which includes tracing the varying representations of a particular theme and an examination of the techniques used by the artist, is always applied by connoisseurs as a means to infer an approximate date for the work, a tentative place of creation and grounding the work in its cultural context. The figure of the crucified Christ has been interpreted in various ways throughout history, in fact early versions are known to have represented a more triumphant Christ who showed no signs of pain or suffering.2 Stylistic analysis of this work reveals that it likely dates to the seventeenth century which is clear from the artist’s use of chiaroscuro as well as certain compositional choices. This representation is further supported given the greater Baroque context and in particular the Counter- Reformation decrees which were enforced by the Roman Catholic Church as can be seen in the Council of Trent, where the austere and direct representation of crucifixion scenes become the norm.3
The Crucifixion depicts Christ nailed to the cross who is centrally placed on the canvas alone without any figures which are typically associated with the scene. In earlier representations of this theme, Christ is portrayed as being surrounded by his mother, the Virgin Mary as well as Mary of Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist; secondary figures usually consisted of the donors, and other saintly figures.4 Numerous examples dating to the Baroque period have eliminated these figures completely or employed various compositional devices to focus attention onto the figure of Christ. Guido Reni’s (1575-1642) Crucifixion, 1619, for example, similarly represents the solo figure of Christ nailed to the cross (fig. 2). While there are obvious differences between The Crucifixion by Reni and by Our artwork they both represent the significant changes happening in art during the seventeenth century.
The dark background present in Our artwork further supports the increasing sombre regime enforced by the Roman Catholic Church through the above-mentioned decrees and whilst there is no clear indication of a geographical location, the representation of this theme strictly represents the verse from Matthew 27:45:
‘From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land’
The dark and ominous background also served to remove any distractions from such a momentous episode from the life of Christ. The same sentiment is echoed in Luke 23:44-45, which reads:
‘It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.’
A Crucifixion scene which contrasts greatly to Our Crucifixion scene is the work by Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci (1560-1609). Here the artist includes an extensive landscape and an idealised figure of Christ (fig. 3). Christ’s body in Carracci’s version does not display the signs of a tortured, bruised or wounded Christ, rather the intricate landscape in the background removes focus from the gruesome scene at hand.
Thanks to the rigorous documentation of the Crucifixion in the bible, art historians can safely phase out various sequences of this theme as describes in the Gospel according to John 19:34. Here he explains that Christ’s side was pierced by a spear; this gash can be seen on the left- hand side of His corpse of Our work in contrast to Guido Reni’s work (fig. 2).
In Our Crucifixion the figure of Christ is depicted in a strictly frontal pose with almost no indication of movement in his body. This stillness contrasts with other Crucifixions where Christ is either writhe with pain or assumes a slight contrapposto position. His head is bowed downwards, as opposed to being tilted to the side and the frontal pose reveals the crown of thorns that adorns his head in a very direct manner. Equally, the loin cloth that Christ wears is draped across his body, instead of being windswept as in other examples. The work is imbued with a quiet atmosphere which only aims to heighten the gravity of the scene in front of us.
It is clear that although the artist remains unknown, the work is of good quality. The use of chiaroscuro and the anatomy of the body of Christ (see abdomen and arms) further confirm the artist’s calibre. The skilled artist however struggles to accurately portray the hands and feet of Christ which are rendered in a naïve style that is inconsistent with the rest of the work (fig. 4).
Iconographic analysis of this theme has also taught art historians to pay close attention to subtle details such as the number of nails used to crucify Christ. Two schools have been identified, primarily the one employing three nails and the other, four. Artists who portray the crucified Christ with four nails often rest his feet on a small ledge which aimed to bare some of the weight.
Prominent Spanish art theorist and artist Francisco Pacheco clearly states in his Arte de la Pintura that Christ should be portrayed using four nails, two nails reserved for the hands and two nails reserved for the feet.5 He believed that representing Christ with four nails reflected proper decorum; for this reason several Spanish examples, such as by important artists like
Diego Velazquez and Francisco Zurbaran, represent Christ crucified with four nails instead of three (fig. 5, fig. 6).6 Other theorists such as Francisco Suárez, believed that it was
Therefore, The Crucifixion which depicts Christ affixed to the cross with three nails instead of four, could point to an Italian influence on the artist rather than Spanish.