Many paintings and sculptures from the 15th through the 17th centuries depict the events in the story of the last days of Christ’s life as recounted in the four Gospels. Depictions of the Passion begin with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem for Passover, celebrated on Palm Sunday, to the Resurrection, celebrated on Easter Sunday. The works by the masters Tintoretto, Rubens, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesco and Grunewald, are considered major artistic representations of the events in the telling of the Passion story.
Tintoretto’s “Last Supper” (1592-94) (12’ x 18’8’’) (San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice), is a major departure from previous depictions of the last supper. Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” (1495-1498), is likely the best-known depiction of the event, and follows the tradition horizontal setting of the table with the twelve disciples and Christ arranged along the rear of the table, and with Judas placed at the center in the front of the table. Instead, Tintoretto places the table on a sharp diagonal creating a dynamic composition. All the figures are posed in motion with diagonal placements of legs and arms. The setting is in a very large room crowded with people, not a room only large enough to hold the table. The disciples sit at the table engaged in conversation with each other. It is a depiction of a Passover celebration dinner. Judas may or may not be the figure sitting on the opposite side of the table.
Tintoretto’s painting changes the dynamic of the last supper image in a significant manner. Traditionally the scene depicts the moment when Christ announces, “Verily I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.” Tintoretto’s “Last Supper” makes the narrative about the celebration of the Eucharist. Christ, at the center of the composition, has broken bread and offers it to one of His disciples. Unlike previous depictions, only those who are close to Christ appear to watch; the attention of the rest is engaged elsewhere.
Tintoretto’s painting also replaces the traditional well-lit setting with an intense darkness and employs miraculous lighting effects that add to the emotional impact. The only light sources in the painting come from the small halos surrounding the head of the apostles, the larger and more intense halo surrounding Christ’s head, and the fire and smoke coming from the single lamp hanging from the ceiling. The clouds of smoke from the lamp reveal shimmering silhouettes of angels. They too witness this event.
Several roughly dressed servants walk around the table and interact with the disciples. In opposition to the large group of figures on the left, only three figures appear at the right. A large male figure in blue, at the right front, turns his back to us, and reaches wit for a dish on the table as he looks over his shoulder at a woman kneeling on the floor. She faces the viewer and reaches with one arm to give the man something, and with the other arm reaches into a large basket. Her action connects the right and left side of the room. In front of the large basket are two wine jugs, and poking into the basket is an orange cat. As the cat is not black, it is not intended as a symbol of evil, but most likely is there simply to represent God’s creatures and add to the domesticity of the scene.
Several events occur on the way to Golgotha, the hill of crucifixions. Rubens’ “Le Coup de Lance” (1620) (14’ x 10.2’) combines several events. Mary, John the youngest disciple, and Mary Magdalene are present at the lower right and react with appropriate emotion. Christ and the two thieves have been hung on the crosses. Notice that the thieves are roped to the cross beam while Christ has been nailed to the cross. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, pirates, and the worst criminals because it was slow and painful and humiliating. A person could live at least two or three days. Blood stopped circulating to the head, and it became difficult to hold up the head, thus suffocation was one ending. In paintings of the crucifixion, as seen here, the nails are hammered into the hand. However, the weight of the body would pull the hands free, so the nails were inserted through the wrists. Many crucifixion scenes depict the suppedaneum (a wooden foot rest) under the feet to ease the pull on the arms and give a small amount of support. Historically the suppedaneum was not used until later time. The convicted person was given wine and myrrh as a sedative, and depictions of the Crucifixion often shows Christ being offered a sponge with vinegar.
In the Biblical story, the Romans and the Jews wanted Christ dead and buried quickly. Rubens included two methods for achieving this end. On the right, a Roman soldier stands on a ladder and uses a crurifragium (an iron bar with a knob on the end) to break the legs of the bad thief, having already broken Christ’s legs. With no support, they cannot raise their heads to breathe. Longinus, the Roman Centurion, pierces Christ in the side with his spear (Coup de Lance) to check if He is dead. According to tradition, at that moment Longinus was converted, believing Christ truly to be the son of God. He would become known as St Longinus. The two thieves are still alive. The bad thief on Christ’s left is struggling, is unrepentant, and remains in the darkness of the sky. The good thief to Christ’s right believes, and he looks to Christ who has forgiven him. He is placed in the lighter sky. The Bible described a darkness for three hours in the afternoon, an earthquake, and the veil of the Temple being ripped asunder. Rubens depicts the darkness in the heavens as an eclipse. The eclipse represents the cause of the darkness, but also is symbolic of the new dawn of Christianity to come after the darkness.
The size of Ruben’s painting (14’ x10.2’), demands attention from the viewer. The figures in the painting are slightly larger than life-size, matching the viewer one to one in scale. Ruben’s use of light and dark, dramatic placement of the red robes, prancing horses, and numerous diagonal movements in the composition, generates a highly emotional rendering of the subject.
Michelangelo’s iconic “Pieta” (1498-1500) (5’8 ½ ‘’) (St. Peter’s) represents the monumental calm in the Renaissance period as opposed to the emotional works of Tintoretto and Rubens. Mary holds the dead body of Christ and solemnly contemplates what has occurred. Renaissance artists, particularly those from Florence, chose to depict Mary as remaining young in appearance as she remained always virtuous and pure. She does not show age as she does not sin. Viewing the monumentality of the “Pieta,” moment of admiration and calm ensues.
Michelangelo shows his great compositional skill in the necessary adjustments he had to make. The contract for the statue stated the figure of Christ was to be six feet tall. In reality, the body and weight of a six-foot male on the lap of a small woman would dwarf Mary. Mary is a gentle and loving figure, and viewers hardly notice that her body is about seven feet tall to enable her to hold Christ. Mary’s legs are spread wide apart to support the weight. One knee supports His legs and the other supports His back. Michelangelo creates sweeping folds of carefully placed drapery to disguise this awkward position, and the heavy drapery successfully assists to support the body.
Michelangelo was young and unknown in Rome at the time he received this commission. He was disappointed to hear viewers who thought the sculpture was made by other well-known artists. Late one night he carved into the diagonal band across Mary’s dress the words, ”I Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this.”
In Passion story order, the “Bandini Deposition” (1547-1555) (89”) occurred before the “Pieta.” Christ’s removal from the cross was accomplished by Joseph of Arimathea, who provided the tomb. Mary was then able to sit and mourn her Son. However, a comparison between the “Pieta” of the twenty-five year old Michelangelo and the “Deposition” of the seventy-two year old artist is interesting. The “Pieta” of his youth is quiet and solid, and he uses a triangular composition to create a stable base which rises to at the high point at Mary’s head. Michelangelo, an extremely devout Catholic, intended the “Deposition” to be placed at his tomb. The face of Joseph of Arimathea is a self-portrait. The composition is triangular, but cut through with diagonals of legs and arms, and if pressure was exerted from above, it would fold like an accordion and collapse. This sculpture is unfinished as can be seen in several places, especially in the female figure and drapery on the right. The female figures are disproportionately smaller compared to Christ and Joseph.
The “Deposition” can be found on display in the Museum of the Cathedral of Florence, a large niche that allows viewers to walk around the entire sculpture. The viewer can observe the rough unfinished marble patches and an assortment of chisel marks, most noticeable in the female figure on the right. Christ’s body has been finished and polished, as are parts of the kneeling female on the left. Christs and Michelangelo’s faces are unfinished. The unfinished state of the sculpture generates a powerful and intensely emotional reaction.
Easter Sunday celebrates Christ’s resurrection from the tomb. Piero della Francesco’s “Resurrection” (1480) (fresco) (89’’ x 79”) shows the traditional scene of the sleeping guards and Christ stepping quietly from a coffin. Christ’s body shows the marks of the nails in His hands and feet, and Longinus’s sword wound to His side. As the resurrected Christ, He carries a white flag with a red cross. This cross was adopted as the symbol of the Resurrection in art in the 12th century when the crusades were popular. This flag was the symbol of St George, the Roman soldier who died because of his belief in Christ. St George also became popular with the people resulting from the romantic and brave story of his killing a dragon and saving a princess. The white of the flag represents resurrection and the red cross Christ’s triumph over death.
The German painter Mathias Grunewald created a unique “Resurrection” (1516) (Isenheim Altarpiece), part of a larger altarpiece depicting several events in Christ’s life and death. Grunewald chose to depict religious themes in an original way and focused on the miraculous. The Isenheim Altarpiece was commissioned by the Brothers of St Anthony for their hospital where they cared for sick and dying peasants. Many of the patients suffered from ergotism, a disease caused by consuming rye flour infected with a fungus. Better known as St Anthony’s fire, the disease caused a skin rash, attacked the nervous system, and led to death. It also caused LSD type hallucination; LSD was discovered in this fungus. Christ seems to blast out of the coffin surrounded by a large aura of gold, orange and green light, set against a black sky. His white winding cloth becomes as a smoke trail from a rocket. It is a hallucination, but it is also a revelation.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.