At least one of the characters here looks up to our right – so they must be located to the left of the cross, under Jesus’s right hand: they are the good people, among the blessed, and the donor is somewhere in their company. We have seen at least three of them before. The man looking up is St John the Evangelist, with his long, uncovered hair, and no beard (he was the youngest of the apostles), and on the left are the two Maries, Mary Salome and Mary Zebedee. We saw them before in Lent 24, way off in the distance, watching the procession of the Via Crucis from the other side. The woman in the turban, to the left of centre, was kneeling and reaching out towards the Virgin, and she still seems to be caring – she looks down towards a veiled head with concern: it would be a good guess that this veil belongs to the mother of Jesus. A woman in purple on the far left turns away – it is all too much. She also has a white veil, and there is just a hint of a black collar – this is the other Mary, who was wringing her hands just next to the Virgin and St John when they were still afar off. But the woman raising her hands and looking towards us is new.
We can see Jesus passing in the background – his bare feet, and the skirts of the blue-grey robe. The Maries and John were on the far side before. I wanted to leave this part of the detail visible today to include the two children, who I didn’t have time to mention before when their heads appeared in Lent 22. More innocent onlookers? More innocence lost? I bring them up now, as these questions may soon be answered. The one on the left wears pink, with a yellow collar. The one on the right has a pink skull cap, grey clothes and a caramel-coloured collar, and holds a bow in his left hand. We’ll come back to them another day. To the right of them we see the rump of a white horse – I commented on its saddle in Lent 21.
Who is this new person? Her expression of grief is profound, with unfocussed eyes, red, and glinting with tears. The open mouth allows us to see her upper teeth and her tongue – is this a low keening, or an involuntary sob? Her hands are raised, but she seems helpless – that sense when you really don’t know what to do, and your hands themselves feel useless: like her eyes, perhaps, they are unfocussed. The grief of St John as he looks up is much the same. Their grief is for Christ, I think, whereas that of the turbaned Mary is for the Virgin. As for the identification of this apparently recent arrival, I’m sorry, but I can’t be precise. No one else is mentioned by name at the Crucifixion, aside from Luke’s comment (23:49) that,
…all his acquaintance, and the women that followed him from Galilee, stood afar off, beholding these things.
There are equivalents in the other two synoptic gospels, Matthew (27:55) even saying that,
…many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him.
So, she is one of the ‘many women… which followed Jesus’. We can at least glean the names of two of them from Luke 8:2-3,
And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.
Maybe this is Joanna, or Susanna, as I happen to know that the Magdalene is elsewhere. The fine clothes of all three women in this detail imply that they did indeed have ‘substance’ from which they could minister unto him.
What the Master of Delft is doing here is very clever, I think, and makes me wonder if he was aware of Alberti’s seminal De Pictura, written in the mid-1430s in Latin, then translated straight away into Italian as Della Pittura – ‘On Painting’. There are two ideas Alberti shares which are adopted in this detail – although that could, of course, be coincidence. The first is the fact that Joanna, or Susanna, looks out at us, as if she is seeking our sympathy, and inviting us to share in her grief. This is what Alberti says:
‘In a painting I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there; or beckons with his hand to see… or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them’
We are certainly being invited to weep together with this woman. The other quotation is concerned with ways in which artists can show differing degrees of grief, by referring to a classical image:
‘They praise Timanthes of Cyprus for the painting in which he… made Calchas sad and Ulysses even sadder at the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and [having] employed all his art and skill on the grief-stricken Menelaus, he could find no suitable way to represent the expression of her disconsolate father [Agamemnon]; so he covered his head with a veil, and thus left more for the onlooker to meditate on about his grief than he could see with the eye.”
That is exactly what is happening here. The turbaned Mary is sad, John is sadder, and Joanna, or Susanna, is perhaps saddest. On the far left, though, the Mary in purple is beyond even that, ‘so he covered [her] head with a veil,’ thus leaving more for us to meditate on about her grief. Sometimes, it seems, our imaginations are more powerful than the artist’s brush. It couldn’t get any worse than this, you would think. And yet… let us wait and see.