Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning

Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning

(gentle piano music) – [Woman] We’re in the
Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at an astoundingly
beautiful painting by the great Northern Renaissance painter, Rogier van der Weyden. This is The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning. When you walk into the galleries, this is an arresting image. Christ’s suffering is so apparent,
Mary’s grief so profound, and my eye is drawn to Mary even more than to Christ on the cross. – [Man] Every ounce of her
being expresses that grief. She can’t stand up, that’s why John is behind her, holding her up. If you look at her
fingers, they’re in this unusual, knotted position. It’s as if the stress and the anxiety have overwhelmed everything about her. – And those hands suggest to me both the anguish of her
grief, but also prayer to God. – The hands operate in both of those ways and of course then there
are the magnificent tears that stream down her face. – Its so spare, its so
reduced in its elements. – We have the figures, we
have the cloths of honor, we have a stone wall, we have a hill, and that’s it, which
focuses our attention. – When we look very closely at Christ, it’s truly terrifying. We have the blood dripping down his feet, the nail in his skin. – Yeah, that nail is amazing. My favorite gruesome
detail is the nub of flesh that the nail pushes up
on his foot, so you get a real sense of that nail
penetrating Christ’s feet. And then the blood that drips
down accentuates our feeling. I get very tense when I look at it. Crucifixion’s were torture. – We also have the blood dripping down from the wound in his
side, and blood on his head from the crown of thorns,
so this terrible suffering. Also in the way that his body hangs, the way that his ribcage
lifts up because the weight is hanging from his arms. And this carefully observed
attention to Human Anatomy, that ribcage, the muscles in the abdomen, muscles in the arms and legs, even though overall,
the body is elongated, and so many other
precisely observed details. The stone on the back wall,
the moss growing on the ground beneath the cross, the water-stained stone at the top of the ledge, creases of the folds
of the cloth of honor. – The tassels at the bottom
of the cloth at Christ’s feet. When you look at it from a distance, you may not recognize
all of these details, but as you get up close and your eye moves around the panels, you
can see those details. What from a distance reads
like a pure gray background, actually is that water-staining,
which is entirely consistent with the water
effects of architecture in Belgium, the original location for which these paintings were created. – That idea of really close observation, this love of the visual world, but in service of a deeply
Christian pious image. – These are observed features
from natural phenomenon that Rogier, as other artists of his day, were beginning to look much
more closely at the world and then trying to
translate that into painting and other art forms. – What art historians often
call ars nova, the new art, this interest in the 15th
Century in both Italy and in Northern Europe in closely
observing the visual world and rendering it so that
the world in the painting resembles our own world. – Which then accentuates
the emotional impact. It makes it resonate that
much more if we can feel as if these are real things that happened. – There was a movement in the 15th Century that was a more personal
approach toward prayer, being able to think
about Christ’s suffering, think about Mary’s
response to that suffering and Mary’s ability then, as
an intercessor for mankind. She suffered along with Christ. She can help us achieve salvation. – And so in the painting, she acts almost as a surrogate for how we feel, or how the original viewer of this, who was enmeshed in a Christian
environment would have felt, and then instructed to
feel about the Crucifixion. And you can see how they
were meant to go together. The green of the landscape
continues from left to right. The Virgin Mary’s blue dress
is present in both works, so we know that these would
have been seen together. – For so long, art
historians assumed that these two paintings were meant to
go together as a diptych. In other words, as a
painting that is comprised of two panels, but recent
research has uncovered a much more interesting history. We now think that these two
panels were the central panels of the outside of an altarpiece that when opened, was 26 feet wide. – Which is enormous, not
only for our perspective, but would have made it among the largest altarpieces ever created
in Northern Europe. Recently, two other paintings
which were originally on the backs of these two
pictures have been identified. – So, when these two panels were opened, you got to see the paintings
that were on the back. And on the back of the panel
that shows the Virgin Mary and Saint John, was a
scene of the Annunciation, and on the back of The Crucifixion, was a scene of The Apparition, of Christ appearing to the Virgin
Mary after his death, but there are so many panels that we still don’t know what the subject was. – What we have is The
Crucifixion on one panel and the Virgin Mary’s
response to that on the other and if she’s the recurring
figure in all of these scenes and the altarpiece puts the
emphasis as much, if not more, on her response to Christ’s,
her son’s, torture. – We have the vibrant red
of the cloths of honor that remind me of the
violence of this moment, but the blue and pink
seem surprisingly pale. – They’re paler than what you
often find in representations of the Virgin and Saint
John, the version especially known for being shown in blue
garments and the exteriors were more restrained in
their approach to color. – As a way of setting you
up for what would happen on special feast days, holidays, when the altarpiece was opened. – These panels operated as doors, as portals onto something else. They were shutters that
covered an interior, and so, often what you would
see when you would enter the church would be these,
but on special occasions, they would be opened and so
the artist needed to build the anticipation for their special events of looking at the other
parts of the altarpiece. – There are many reasons
why art historians think that these opened onto a sculpted center, and we have to imagine these
sculptures painted, gilded, very much looking alive to the people who were in the church praying. – It was a multi-media experience and it goes beyond the
paintings, the sculptures, but also the space of the church itself. All of these working in tandem to create a moving experience. – I have a much better sense
now of what the experience of this painting was in the 15th Century. (gentle piano music)

7 Replies to “Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning”

  1. I live close to Phila and have seen these two painting often. The red background really catches your eye. I'd like to see the other side of the painting now that I know it's there.

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