Van der Weyden, Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John

Van der Weyden, Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John


(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: Under a black
night sky, with this dim light and this sense of doom,
the Virgin Mary’s fingers are knit together in one
of the most startling and stark images. Dr. Harris: We’re looking
at one of the jewels in the collection of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Roger van der Weyden’s, The Crucifixion, with the Mourning Virgin and
Saint John the Evangelist This is a radically
reduced, simplified image that because of that reduction, conveys extraordinary emotional power. Dr. Zucker: There’s a
sense of solemnity here that is overpowering. The geometry creates eternal mourning, as if these figures will
always be in this deep grief. Dr. Harris: We’re looking
at an earthly scene, the scene of the crucifixion. Dr. Zucker: On Golgotha. Dr. Harris: Right, the
hill outside of Jerusalem where Christ was crucified,
but there is a sense that we’re not looking
at that scene in the way that we usually do, where
we see on either side the two thieves who were
crucified along with Jesus, a landscape behind him
filled with figures, other mourners at the base of the cross. This isn’t so much a
representation of the crucifixion as it is a representation of
the idea of the crucifixion. Dr. Zucker: This is almost
a emotional distillation. By removing everything that’s unnecessary, there’s a heightened emotional impact. It suggests to me that this was not meant for a public church,
but perhaps it was meant for a monastic environment
or an environment where people knew the story
well and the idea here was to just intensify the emotion, to intensify the spiritual. Dr. Harris: Right, to simplify
the image as a kind of aid in prayer and visualization
to help us, as viewers, to feel the emotion that Mary feels. Dr. Zucker: An art historian
has actually pointed out the relationship between
this kind of rendering and the monastic work of
Fra Angelico, for instance, an artist who’s known
for elegant and spare, but also very intensely
emotional kind of painting. Dr. Harris: Right, and we
might think of Fra Angelico’s frescoes at the Monastery of
San Marco, where he lived. Dr. Zucker: So powerful for
me are those red banners that hang and frame both sets of figures. If you look on the left,
you see Saint John, who’s supporting Mary as she faints. She falls to the ground and
we really feel her weight, we see her body under even the heavy cloth that she wears, but she falls so elegantly and so beautifully, but
still completely enveloped in her pain. Christ is also beautifully
illuminated against that brilliant red ground. That red is so vivid and
so beautiful and so rich and so much an expression
of the violence and passion and yet, also, the quiet of this moment. I think the thing that I find
most startling is not only the black sky, but also
that little shadow line behind the red cloths. Those curtains are hanging
over that stone wall that creates such a shallow
space in the painting as a whole, but they’re not
actually touching the wall. You’ll notice that
there’s a lip at the top and so they hang over,
creating this thin plane of air that’s utterly still and because
those curtains fall flat, we get a sense of the
airlessness of this space, as if nothing is moving,
nothing is changing. Dr. Harris: Yet, that very
same shadow also convinces us of the reality of this
scene and it makes it all the more concrete and
palpable and also creates a flat vibrant surface that
makes Christ’s body stand out almost like sculpture. Dr. Zucker: Because that
cloth had recently been folded and it’s creases have not yet
fallen out, there’s a grid behind the body, as well. The strictness of the
geometry against the body creates a kind of formality
that is, in some ways, very powerful, visually. You’ve got the organic,
stressed, tortured body against lines that are
clear and structured. It makes it all the more vivid. Dr. Harris: It also
contrasts with the fluttering of his loincloth, a kind
of spiritual feeling within this otherwise very
still and somber image. Dr. Zucker: That somberness is the result of the darks above, of the
shallowness, and of course, of the sense of stillness. As you said, this is a
painting that is really about our own reflection on these events. Look below Christ’s feet, you
can just see the little hill that is Golgotha,
represented schematically. Just in front of that, you can see that there’s a small
ravine, which separates these spiritual figures,
this spiritual space from our world, but on
our side of that crevice, you see a skull. It’s traditional to represent this skull, but this particular skull
is staring out at us and seems to be a kind of warning, to be a kind of reminder,
a reminder of death, a memento mori. Dr. Harris: Specifically,
a reminder that Christ is our path away from death
to eternal life in heaven. We’re going to die, but it’s
through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which is
rendered so very close to that skull. The blood of the wound
from the nail on his feet, drawing our eye down toward that skull. Dr. Zucker: In a typically
northern fashion, that bolt that so violently
pierces Christ’s feet is painted with a vividness, an accuracy that makes it seem absolutely believable. Dr. Harris: This painting is really a remarkable combination of details that are rendered
incredibly realistically, like that bolt or the creases in the cloth and then these supernatural elements. Dr. Zucker: There’s also
Mary being comforted by John, but Christ, the most tortured
figure, is absolutely alone, that there is this sense of isolation, that there really is no
way to comfort Christ. There’s something terribly
tragic that results from this. Dr. Harris: The way that
John looks at Christ, there’s a sense of how
did we as humanity do this to God? This shallow space, this
emphasis on human emotion. Paintings that are especially pared down, especially acetic are
typical of his later work. (jazz music)

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