Friday, April 22, 2011

Holy Week with Giotto – Good Friday, Early Afternoon, the Crucifixion

“After they had crucified him,
they divided his garments by casting lots;
then they sat down and kept watch over him there.
And they placed over his head the written charge against him:
This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
(Matthew 27:35-37)

Giotto, Crucifixion
Italian, 1300-1305
Padua, Arena Chapel
 “The Crucifixion” brings us to the culminating event of the Passion. Jesus is shown nailed to the cross. To his left are the soldiers and the mob, to his right are his Mother and her supporters, including the Apostle John and, at his feet, kneels Mary Magdalene.

Several moments from the Crucifixion narratives appear to have been conflated here. First of all, the soldiers at the right side of the painting are holding the tunic and appear to be arguing over whether or not they should cut it up. Second, among the crowd at the right, most of whom are those who have plotted or carried out the Crucifixion, is one person with a halo. Candidates for the identity of this person may be: Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, or Longinus (the name given by tradition to the unnamed centurion). Since this figure appears to wear Roman military red, with a black helmet, just like the other soldiers, I would opt for the identification as Longinus. As this person is gesturing toward Christ, this may be the moment when the centurion declares “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54) If this is correct, then this is the moment just after the death of Jesus.

Detail - Angels at the left hand of Jesus
 This would appear to be a correct interpretation if we look at the reactions of Jesus’ friends and of the angels who surround Him in the skies. On earth Mary, His Mother, appears to have fainted. Her eyes are closed and she is supported at each arm by a friend, John to her left and one of the several women named in the Gospels at her right. In the skies the angels dramatically express their dismay, their grief and even their anger. They exclaim, they avert their eyes, they wring their hands and one even tears his garments in the same gesture as Caiaphas in the scene of “Christ Before Caiaphas”.

Detail - Angel at the side of Christ
Two angels hold bowls to catch the blood dripping from His wounded hands, while another holds his bowl to capture the blood spurting from the lance wound in His side. This detail reinforces the interpretation that this is the moment, shortly after death, on which Christ’s side is pierced.

Detail - Skeleton of Adam

Mary Magdalene leans down to kiss His wounded feet. And we notice that, under the rock on which the cross stands, is a grave containing a skeleton. A long-standing poetic and iconographic tradition held that Golgotha, the hill of Calvary, was also the location of the Garden of Eden and that the cross was made from the wood of the Tree of Life from the Garden. This tradition also held that Adam, the first man, was buried at the foot of the Tree.

Two earlier examples of this iconography are shown here.

Mosaic, Crucifixion
Italian, 1200-1220
Venice, San Marco Cathedral

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Crucifixion
Right wing of a Diptych
Italian, 1260-1270
Florence, Uffizi Museum
The death of the new Adam, Jesus, is thus linked with the death of the first man, Adam “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life” (1 Corinthians 15:22). This is the moment when the division caused by Adam’s disobedience in the Garden is healed by Christ’s obedient death, in the same Garden.

© M. Duffy, 2011