Friday, April 7, 2023

Possibly the Most Profound Painting of the Crucifixion Ever


What a difference a touch of restoration can make! When I first came to Philadelphia half a century ago, Rogier Van der Weyden's Crucifixion With the Virgin and Saint John did not move me at all. It is a very large, dominating work. But a childhood full of holy cards had inoculated me from any pictorial spiritual impulse. It was your standard crucifixion lots of gold leaf to underline the holiness of it all.

But then the Philadelphia Museum of Art took down the canvases (pretty obviously the surviving two thirds of a triptych) for cleaning and a careful examination revealed that the gold leaf that dominated the upper fifth of the paintings had been added sometime after the original painting. It was removed... 

And a flat, featureless black sky was revealed.

To understand the effect of this, you must first know that in Christian (belief? mythology? folklore? I'm not sure which, but I was definitely taught this in St. Francis Xavier Elementary) when Jesus was crucified and died, God removed His Presence from the world. For the three days between the Sacrifice and the Resurrection, this was a godless planet.

Literally. If you're a believing Christian, you understand the horror of this. If you're not, please take my word for it.

Now consider the image. The Son of God is dead and nailed up against a bleak sky that holds not one scintilla of light. His mother is fainting in despair. Saint John is holding her up, but he too is overcome with despair. Without God, there is no hope.

I used to give these paintings a cursory respectful look and move along. Now I sit down on the bench in front of them that the museum has thoughtfully provided and consider them for a long, long time.

You don't have to be a believer to find them moving.

But if you are, hang in there. The Resurrection is coming! Easter is on its way.


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