NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION
Left: The Entombment (or Christ being carried to his Tomb) Michelangelo about 1500-1
Centre: The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (The Mond Crucifixion) Raphael about 1502-3
Right Noli me Tangere Titian about 1514
The story of the events leading up to and following the Crucifixion is known as the Passion of Christ - this is the Easter Story. To celebrate Easter discover the story of the Passion, told through paintings in the National Gallery Collection. Follow the links above to view the paintings online or take a virtual stroll of the Sainsbury Wing to discover more about the collection of early paintings in the Gallery. Better still, read reviews on a selection of the paintings beautifully considered below by Susan Gray who contributes regularly for the Sunday Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail.
REVIEW by SUSAN GRAY
Donald Trump predicted church would be full at Easter. That has not come to pass, but the National Gallery is conveying the Easter story through 12 works of art. With the events of Holy Week and the Passion narrated across all four Gospels, and two millennia of Church tradition and teaching added in, different elements of the story can be subject to varying interpretations and timescales.
The four paintings below relate to the events traditionally associated with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This review will continue on Good Friday, with more on the National Gallery’s works for that part of the Easter story.
NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION PASSION PART I: MAUNDY THURSDAY
Andrea Mantegna, Agony In the Garden, 1455 -6
From early in Mantegna’s career, we see Christ praying in Gethsemane, after he has been betrayed by Judas, knowing his fate is at hand. It is based on the account of the Passion given in Matthew. “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’The three disciples keeping watch with Him have fallen asleep, and Roman soldiers are approaching to arrest Him along a winding road. But in a bending of time, muscular cherubs, influenced by Donatello’s sculpture, are on a cloud at the top of the canvas, carrying a cross, the symbol of the Resurrection and the church that will come into being. Symbolic renewal of life is also shown by the egret on a branch, and grasses and plants breaking through the ground.
Ugolino di Nerio, The Betrayal of Christ, The Santa Croce Altarpiece c. 1326
A late medieval take on the events of Gethsemane, with Judas’ betraying Jesus with a kiss, and haloed Peter cutting the ear of the arresting soldiers, presented as simultaneous events.
Rembrandt, Ecce Homo, 1634,
A preparatory work for an etching, this small black and white painting (grisaille) is based on the events in John’s gospel, showing Pilate handing Jesus over to the religious authorities, although he cannot condemn Him under Roman law. Pilate refuses the religious elders’ rod of justice, as he knows what he is doing in not just. Although there is no colour, this work fizzes with physical energy, with Christ at its centre, slightly higher than his tormentors.
Diego Velasquez, Christ Contemplated by the Christian Soul, 1629 -29
Painters from the Seville School rarely hold back on the gory detail in religious paintings. In subdued tones we see Christ tied to a column, having been flogged by Roman soldiers, on his way to be crucified. A Guardian Angel, with impressive grey wings, encourages a young boy to contemplate Christ’s suffering. A shaft of light between the central figure of Jesus and the blue clad young boy bottom right, represents hope and redemption.
NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION PASSION PART II: GOOD FRIDAY
Good Friday is the most solemn day of the Christian church year. For churches following the Roman Rite, Mass is preceded by the Stations of the Cross, a contemplation with readings of 14 images depicting Christ’s Easter journey from condemnation to entombment. Altars are stripped bare, and bells are replaced with a wooden clapper, a crotalus, which makes a sound like the earth being split in two. Traditionally worshippers wear black, and enter and leave Mass in silence. The following painting reviews cover the events traditionally associated with Good Friday.
Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, 1502-3
Painted for a funerary chapel, this altarpiece panel shows the crucified Christ, high on a cross above a stylised green landscape, with an angel on his left holding two chalices, one catching the blood from his pierced side. On Christ’s right, a gold clad angel also holds a chalice, underling the centrality of communion to worshippers at the altar. At the foot of the cross to the left is an inkily clad for mourning Virgin Mary, and St Jerome, ahistorically appearing from four centuries in the future, and to the right John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene. The sky contains both sun and moon, in perfect circles of gold and silver paint, representing the eclipse that took place as Jesus died on the cross.
Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, The Deposition, 1500 -1505
The day the National Gallery reopens, I am sprinting to Room 62 to see this masterpiece, all 75 x 47cm of it. The Deposition depicts 13th Station of the Cross, when Jesus is taken down from the Cross. The central image is a stiff, grey, mutilated corpse, with bloody puncture wounds on the forehead from the crown of thorns, open slash on the ribs, and hands and feet pierced with red. Above the body is a precariously balanced boy on a ladder, while Joseph of Arimathaea supports the body from the side, with Nicodemus taking the weight of the lower limbs. Weeping at the foot of the Cross are the Virgin Mary, John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene, whose symbol, a jar of ointment, is foregrounded together with a skull.
Annibale Carracci , The Dead Christ Mourned (The Three Maries), 1604
A vivid Baroque depiction of the pieta - the lamentation over the dead Christ following crucifixion, where the Virgin Mary has fainted as she cradles her dead son in her lap. The pose of the mother echoes the head back, limbs extended, lifeless, stretched out body of Christ. Mary Magdalene in red and gold dominates the right of the canvas, offering a contrasting colour palette to the washed out hues of the centre and left. The mourning of Christ by the women closest to him is not recounted in any Gospels, and the painting compresses the lamentation, the Entombment and the discovery of the Resurrection by the women at the tomb. Mary Salome and Mary Cleophas may be the additional female figures. Carracci’s combination of formal classicism and intense human expression prefigures Nicholas Poussin.
Sisto Badaloccio, Christ Carried To The Tomb, after 1609
Painted with oil on copper, this nighttime scene of Christ being carried to his tomb by torchlight glistens. Against a dark background, Christ’s foreshortened pale body is in the centre, carried on a shroud by a circle of figures including the Virgin Mary, in blue, and possibly Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathaea, Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist. The mourners are closely packed around the body, drawing us into their circle of grief, and creating intimacy between the viewer and the scene. This is a physically small work with monumental scale of imagination and feeling.
Michaelangelo, The Entombment ( or Christ Being Carried To His Tomb), 1500 -01
One of only three surviving panel painting by Michelangelo, this unfinished work was intended by for a funerary chapel in Rome. At the centre is an almost vertical and physically perfect, unblemished Christ figure, prefiguring the Resurrection. The mourners and Christ are sculptural, and the 3D effect is enhanced by the blending of oil paint shades while still wet to create shadow, and a scraping away of paint from the background rocks, as if Michelangelo was creating sculpture. The painter completed each figure before moving on to the next, and the blank space at the bottom right was probably intended for a kneeling Virgin Mary. The upright figures and expanse of blue sky convey a sense of power and hope, as the Easter story progresses.
NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION PASSION PART III: HOLY SATURDAY; SUNDAY DAWN; RESURRECTION
Holy Saturday is a liminal time in the Easter story: the worst has happened, but the marking of the Resurrection is yet to come. The Mass of Easter Vigil, held on Saturday night or the early hours of Sunday, begins with lighting a fire outside the church, symbolising the new light coming into the world. A taper from this Holy Fire lights the Paschal candle, a monumental candle inscribed with a cross, the year’s date, and symbol for Alpha and Omega. This sense of events unfolding both in, and out of, comprehensible human time, can be seen in the way works in the National Gallery Passion series blend different parts of the Easter story in one image. And also weave accounts from the four Gospels, together with traditions from the Church.
Jacopo di Cione and workshop,The Resurrection: Upper Tier Panel, 1370-1
Created to be seen by candlelight, this panel from the altarpiece of San Pier Maggiore in Florence, shows Christ risen from a closed tomb, while the Roman soldiers supposed to guard the burial place, sleep at the base of the image. Forming the focal point Christ ascends to heaven dressed in white and gold robes lined in red. He carries a white flag with a red cross, symbolising the Resurrection and the triumph over death. In the late 14th century San Pietro was one of the oldest and much powerful Florentine churches, where the city’s bishops returned after their enthronement at the Cathedral. The whole altarpiece, with its scenes from the life of Christ, would have been the backdrop to this great ceremonial occasion
Titian, Noli me Tangere, 1514
Taken from the account in John, (20: 14–18), the risen Christ appears to Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane. She mistakes him for a gardener at first, and then reaches out her hand in wonder. Christ says ‘Do not touch me’, as it is time for his followers to relinquish His human form and presence, and wait for the Holy Ghost to come among them. This work is from early in Titian’s long career, with the sinuous figure of Christ reflecting the sculptural classicism of Raphael and Michaelangelo. The idyllic country landscape harmonises with the figures of Christ and Mary Magdalene, whose clothing are highlighted in different shades of white. The darker shade on Christ’s covering was achieved through dragging lead through the paint.
Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601
The account of two of Christ’s followers encountering him on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, come from Luke. (24: 13-35). Although not recognising Christ on the road, the two men ask Him to have supper with them at an inn. At the table Christ blessed and broke the bread, and the scene of amazement and enlightenment Caravaggio depicts unfolded.
The artist’s use of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, underpins the narrative. Light falls on Jesus’ face from the left, linking Him to St James at his right, whose outstretched arms echo the pose of crucifixion. The second man leans across the table, towards Christ’s outstretched right hand, drawing the viewer into an intimate triangle. Shadows on the back wall cast a halo shape behind Christ’s head. Painting directly onto the canvas, and using real life models to compose his works, Caravaggio creates a sense of realism, drama and intimacy which is breathtaking.
NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION PASSION PART IV: EASTER SUNDAY
On Easter Sunday Christians rejoice in the Resurrection and Christ’s triumph over death. The events of the first Easter Day, when Peter and the beloved apostle discover Christ’s tomb was empty define Christians, and mark the foundation of the early Church.
The Easter period lasts for 50 days until Pentecost. And the Sunday after Easter Sunday is Thomas Sunday.
Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano,The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1502 -4
Part of the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing virtual tour (link above), this richly coloured altarpiece was commissioned for a hospital north of Venice. The city state was the centre of the pigment trade. With light falling on the figure of Jesus from the right hand side, a rust red and vivid green clad Thomas reaches over from the left, placing a finger in Jesus’ wound. The slash is shown towards the top of Christ's ribs, rather the side, with the ribs in slight shadow, adding to the 3D effect. Looking on is John the Baptist in light blue and gold, with a halo traced behind, and a tonsured, bearded St Peter. St Thomas’ realisation that the resurrection has indeed happened is depicted in a stylised interior, with receding black and white squared floor, and hilltop town landscape and blue sky visible through two tall arched windows. Influenced by Bellini, Conegliano used different thicknesses of glaze to achieve the work’s rich draping and fabric folds. Records show the artist was only finally paid for the work in 1509, after taking legal against the Scuola di San Tommaso dei Battuti confraternity.