108 – The Crucifixion

Giotto, The Road to Calvary and The Crucifixion, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

And so we begin the final chapter in the epic that is the Scrovegni Chapel, and to give you a better sense of where we are, I have found an image of the whole of the North Wall – clearly taken from a double spread in a book, as there is a fold down the central decorative strip.

We see the stories of the Birth and Betrothal of the Virgin running along the top (Picture Of The Day 73 and POTD 31), and the Mission of Christ (POTD 93, 100, 102) in the middle. Along the bottom we can see the trompe l’oeil marble wainscoting, with seven imaginary niches, each containing a fictive sculpture of one of the seven Vices (POTD 52 and POTD 59). These connect the West Wall, with its image of the torments of hell, with the depiction of the Temptation of Judas on the North side of the chancel arch (102). Today we are starting the journey along the bottom tier, with The Road to Calvary leading directly to The Crucifixion. The first thing to notice is that Jesus is walking out of the city of Jerusalem as if he were walking away from the image of hell on the West Wall. Although his whole life and mission so far have been leading up to this moment through the implacable left-to-right movement of all of the narrative scenes, he is now approaching the point at which he will truly give up everything to free mankind from the implications of sin. Working one the level of metaphor, his actions here allow others, like him, to walk away from hell.

The way is led by the two thieves, who are just about to exit the picture field on the right. It might not be obvious who they are, but they can be identified by looking back at pictorial tradition: the two thieves regular precede Jesus in the procession to Calvary, almost as if they are an ‘introduction’, while he is the ‘star attraction’, left until last. The thief on the right carries something over his shoulder – the base of his cross, most of which was painted a secco and has been lost. Much of the surface of this particular image has gone, probably the result of the destruction of the Scrovegni Palace, which, as you may remember, was originally on the other side of this wall. The destructino of teh palace in the 19th Century rendered the North Wall of the chapel more susceptible to the adverse effects of weathering. The thief on the right has darker clothes and hair than his companion, who is turning round and looking back. My guess would be that the man on the right is the Bad Thief, whereas the blonder one (with hair more like Jesus), who repents – and looks back to Jesus – would be the Good Thief. Including them here means that Giotto doesn’t need to depict them in the Crucifixion itself, thus enabling him to focus on Jesus, who stands out all the more clearly in both images thanks to the space all around him. Despite the soldier who reaches out to push him on, no other figure touches him or overlaps him. He is surrounded by clear blue sky, and looks over his shoulder, enabling us to see his face clearly. He is already more than halfway across the picture, driving the action forward and leading us inexorably on to the next image. Indeed, he is just about to arrive at the foot of the hill – Golgotha – on which he will be crucified: the ground has started to rise under the feet of the thieves.

But before we get there, there are other things to notice. What will be the horizontal of the cross forms a diagonal in this image. Not only does this add to the forward movement of the narrative, leading our eyes to the right, but it also leads upwards, and ultimately, to heaven, as the Crucifixion could eventually lead the faithful to Heaven. A group of soldiers are gathered at its lower end, almost as if they are weighing it down, their ghost-like spears being one of the losses to the image, as are their silver leaf helmets. There are also priests, and other figures, including a man who tries to make the Virgin Mary turn back, her face distorted in her grief. This marks her reappearance in the narrative – if you look back to the scenes on the lower tier of the South Wall, she does not appear at all. Another element that is not so obvious, is that Jesus appears to be leaving the City by the same gate through which he had entered only five days previously. If it is the same gate we have crossed the road, and if not, it is at least of the same type, flanked by two octagonal towers. The triumph of Palm Sunday (102) has been replaced by the bitterness and shame – as it would have been seen – of Crucifixion.

The Crucifixion itself is presented entirely formally. Jesus is central, and raised up on the cross. It is the same structure that he carried in the previous scene – more a ‘T’ than a ‘cross’, but now the titulus has been attached. The titulus is the panel at the top of the cross which here bears the inscription ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Judeorum’ – Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews. According to the Bible (John 19:20), this ‘was written in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin’, although often we only see the abbreviation, I.N.R.I. The angels fly around Jesus in paroxysms of grief, wringing their hands, throwing them up in despair, gathering the precious blood from the wounds in his hands and chest, and tearing their clothes – and this happens directly opposite the scene in which the High Priest also ‘rent his clothes’ (107). Below, the gathered assembly is divided much as it is in the Last Judgement on the end wall (POTD 38), with the good under Jesus’s right hand and the bad under his left. At the bottom left of the image we see Mary, who has fainted as a result of her grief, supported by John the Evangelist and one of the holy women. Presumably this is one of the people mentioned in John 19:25 who were present at the Crucifixion, who is described as Jesus’s ‘mother’s sister, Mary, the wife of Cleophas’ (John 19:25). Mary Magdalene, her red hair streaming down her back, kneels at the foot of the cross, with all her attention directed towards Christ’s feet, which she had previously washed with precious ointment using the hair which is so prominent in this depiction.

Although we saw the foot of the hill just outside the city gates in the last image, there is little hint of it here – but that is because we are at the summit, apparently consisting of a plateau, with a small central mound into which the cross is buried. At its foot is a skull, and other bones – explained by the fact that Golgotha means ‘the place of the skull’. However, the Bible does not explain is how the hill got this name. According to the Legend of the True Cross, one of the stories told in the Golden Legend, the skull which we see belonged to none other than Adam: part of God’s ineffable plan meant that Jesus was crucified in the self-same place where Adam had been buried.

On our right – under Jesus’s left hand – are those who will be condemned to hell. A mass of soldiers are gathered in the background, their tarnished silver leaf halos forming an ill-defined black area above the more visible faces. In the foreground an argument is taking place. Two men hold a red robe – this belongs to Jesus – and they pull at its shoulders. The man on the right wields a knife – it could be used to threaten his opponent, and to prevent any violence a third man grasps his wrist. It could also be used to cut the garment into sections. It is a seamless robe, which cannot be unstitched, which would have allowed the men to share the precious material between them. In the end they will neither fight over it, nor cut it up. Instead, they will gamble for it. Often paintings of the crucifixion show them rolling dice, or drawing straws, in fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. This is what it says in John 19:23-24, immediately after the mention of the titulus, and just before the presence of John and the three Maries is noted:

23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. 24 They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

In the King James Version, this prophesy is found in Psalm 22:18:

18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.

However, one figure stands out on this ‘bad’ side – how could he not? He has a halo, after all. He gestures up to Jesus, and looks towards the priest standing to his left. The unusual form of his helmet, with two pointed ‘ears’, suggests he is no normal soldier. It is not a standard ‘western’ form – the implication is that he was somehow foreign – he appears to be marked out as an outsider. However, his halo tells us he was a Christian. This suggest he could be a recent convert, and indeed, he has only just had this revelation. He is the centurion mentioned in Mark 15:29:

39 And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

As with so much of the painting in this Chapel, the attention to detail seen in every one of the images is only enhanced when we look at the relationships between the different elements of the narrative. Here, for example, are the first two scenes on all three tiers of the North Wall, with the decorative panels in between omitted (we will return to them next week – or soon after).

At the top left, we see the Birth of the Virgin – this is, for obvious reasons, Mary’s first appearance in the narrative. Directly below, in Christ Among the Doctors, she enters the scene from the left, having temporarily lost Jesus – he had been left behind in Jerusalem. We see her again, directly below the depiction in the middle tier, as she follows the procession from the city gate. The physical position in the image is the same, but the emotional one could hardly be more different – having found what was lost in the middle tier, she is about to lose her son to death. If the top tier marks her first appearance in the narrative, the lower two both represent her return: ‘Enter Mary, Stage Right’. She was not present in the Massacre of the Innocents, which is opposite Christ Among the Doctors, nor in the whole of the lower tier of the South Wall.

Jesus is not yet present in the top tier, but starts his ‘mission’ by debating with the doctors in the middle tier, his bright red robe making him the most prominent figure in the room. This red is also what makes him stand out against the blue sky in the lowest tier, where he is enacting God’s plan, surely the subject of the discussion taking place in Christ Among the Doctors, which is painted directly above..

There is always more of a connection between the lower two tiers – indeed, there is an additional decorative frieze which separates the story of Mary from the central tier. Nevertheless, The Presentation of Mary to the Temple, where she is received by the priesthood, and her status is effectively acknowledged, sits above The Baptism of Christ, where God the Father acknowledges his Son. The connection between The Baptism, and The Crucifixion below it, is especially profound. Both are more or less symmetrical, with Jesus in the centre, facing front. In both Jesus is presented as entirely humble, and entirely human, naked in The Baptism and all but naked in The Crucifixion. On the left of The Baptism two angels hold Jesus’s clothes – the blue cloak and the red robe, which hang limply from their hands. In The Crucifixion the same red robe hangs down from the hands of the soldiers on the right, but where is the blue cloak? There is apparently no sign of it, but it is evoked: Mary, in her typical blue, hangs limply from the arms of Mary Cleophas and John the Evangelist much as the blue cloak hangs from the arms of the angel above. And look below the red robe held by the angel. Even if Jesus’s robe has been taken to the ‘bad’ side, by the soldiers, another red item has been let drop: Mary Magdalene’s cloak, which lies on the ground around her knees. This cloak will take on more significance in the next week or so… but until then… keep looking!

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

2 thoughts on “108 – The Crucifixion

  1. I love the way you have guided us around the Scrovegni, Richard, pointing out the directionality of the architecture and the narrative, as if Giotto had screened a film onto its walls. I had only ever known about the Vices opposing the Virtues, but now I understand the whole structure. Thank you.

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