Matthew 27:35–36; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23–25a

The Casting of Lots

Commentaries by David Ekserdjian

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Andrea Mantegna

The Crucifixion, 1457–59, Tempera on panel, 75 x 96 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris; Inv. 368, Photo: Thierry Le Mage © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The Die is Cast

Commentary by David Ekserdjian

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Andrea Mantegna’s Crucifixion in the Louvre, painted on panel, was originally the central element of the predella of the artist’s high altarpiece of 1456–59 for San Zeno in Verona.

The main part of the work, which represents the Virgin and Child with musician angels in a continuous triptych format between saints—four to either side—remains in its original location. Like many predellas—and the triptych by Andrea Vanni elsewhere in this exhibition—this one involved a left-to-right narrative. Here, as in Vanni’s triptych, the Crucifixion was preceded by the Agony in the Garden, but in this case the finale was the Resurrection rather than the Descent into Limbo.

It is explained in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John that Golgotha means ‘place of a skull’, and in addition to one at the foot of the cross, a whole mass of them and other bones fill a small cave at far left. 

In the foreground, the mourning Saint John the Evangelist on Jesus’s right is balanced on the other side by a Roman soldier on horseback looking up at Christ—he is presumably the Centurion who declared ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). At the very foot of the cross is Mary being held up by the Holy Women, once again counterpointed by the soldiers casting lots.

This counterpoint between right and left both replicates the contrast between good and evil as it is embodied in the two thieves on either side of Christ, but also complicates it. The soldiers, with their insouciance towards the executed men above them, are hardly exemplary figures, as the mourners at the foot of the penitent thief’s cross are. But they handle Christ’s garment with cautious interest, and may (like the Centurion) be on the verge of some epiphany.

Perhaps it is not our place to judge them, for, as Augustine has it:

By [their] casting of lots, what else is commended but the grace of God? … When the lot is cast, the award is decided not by the merits of each individual but by the secret judgment of God. (Tractates on The Gospel of John, 118.4)

Andrea Vanni

Scenes from the Passion of Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo, 1380s, Tempera on panel, 56.9 x 116.4 x 3.4 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Corcoran Collection (William A. Clark Collection), 2014.79.711.a-c, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Drawing Straws

Commentary by David Ekserdjian

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Andrea Vanni’s signed Crucifixion in the National Gallery of Art in Washington is the middle panel of a small folding triptych, and is flanked by scenes of the Agony in the Garden and the Descent into Limbo, to form a compact left-to-right narrative sequence.

Dating from the late fourteenth century, and set against a gold backdrop, it shows Christ on the cross, with Mary Magdalene embracing it and Saint John the Evangelist nearby. Jesus is between the ‘Good Thief’ (on his right and attended by angels) and the ‘Bad Thief’ (on his left—or ‘sinister’—side and tormented by devils). The latter’s legs are being broken.

To either side of the cross are Roman soldiers on horseback, the Centurion who believed in him (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39), and the one who pierced Christ’s side (John 19:34–37) whom later tradition held to have been converted in that moment. Both in consequence are given haloes. In the foreground to Christ’s right are the fainting Virgin attended by the Holy Women, balanced on the other side by three Roman soldiers resolving who will have Christ’s robe.

Vanni shows these three soldiers—and this is very unusual—drawing lots in the form of straws. In spite of the fact that our expression ‘drawing the short straw’ means being the loser, it has to be assumed that here the odd straw out—whether it is shorter or longer than the other two—is the winner.

There remains the question of what precisely is being won here. On a literal level, the soldiers all hope to gain possession of nothing more nor less than a garment. However, it is immediately apparent that the artist has portrayed it as one of considerable beauty and refinement, comprised of what in his day were the two most expensive pigments—a rich blue robe adorned with gold trim at the neck, wrists, and hem.

At the same time, read figuratively in a way that was common in Church tradition, it must surely signify something more; something more like a sacramental sign. For, ‘woven from the top without seam’, it ‘represented his divinity, which was undivided because it was not composite’ (Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron, 20.27).

Bernardino Luini

The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, 1529, Fresco, Santa Maria degli Angioli, Lugano, Switzerland; Scala / Mauro Ranzani / Art Resource, NY

The Opposite of Charity

Commentary by David Ekserdjian

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The Crucifixion by Bernardino Luini in Santa Maria degli Angeli, Lugano, which is inscribed with the date 1529, is an immense fresco that fills the tramezzo—a kind of partition that divides the nave from the choir—of the church in question. Luini takes advantage of the scale at his disposal to fill the background with six supplementary narratives, which (reading from left to right) represent three earlier episodes (the Agony, the Mocking of Christ, and the Way to Calvary) to Jesus’s right, and three later episodes (the Lamentation, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and the Ascension) to his left.

In the main scene, many of the same characters from the two other (earlier) works in this exhibition—by Andrea Vanni and Andrea Mantegna respectively—are repeated. Indeed, they are often performing the identical actions. But there are straightforward additions and one particularly intriguing difference.

When it comes to additions, Luini represents a woman with her children at the left edge of the composition to symbolize Charity, and also the sun and moon, in allusion to the ‘darkness over all the land’ recorded by Matthew (27:45), Mark (15:33), and Luke (23:44–45). He also includes the man who features in all four Gospels, and gives Christ a sponge filled with vinegar (19:29), who is absent from the treatments elsewhere in this exhibition.

The striking difference concerns the soldier with the lance: John 19:24–27, relates that ‘one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water’, and over time there grew up a legend that this individual, subsequently called Longinus—and often, but not here, also taken to be the Centurion of Matthew 27:54 and Mark 15:39—was blind and that his sight was miraculously restored by Christ’s blood. Self-evidently, that is why Luini shows him rubbing his left eye with his left hand.

Fitting company for the impious thief above them, the soldiers casting lots for possession of Christ’s seamless garment are here shown as violent men, and are about to fight over the robe—seemingly to the death, for one soldier is captured in the act of drawing his dagger. They risk tearing the robe in the process, just as the body which once wore it has been so cruelly rent.

Andrea Mantegna :

The Crucifixion, 1457–59 , Tempera on panel

Andrea Vanni :

Scenes from the Passion of Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo, 1380s , Tempera on panel

Bernardino Luini :

The Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, 1529 , Fresco

‘They Parted My Garments Among Them’

Comparative commentary by David Ekserdjian

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In all four Gospels, there are references to the casting of lots, and in the case of the first three what is said is broadly similar yet at the same time subtly different.

Matthew 27:35 states:

And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, ‘They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots’.

Mark 15:24 relates: ‘And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take’.

The most telegraphic of the Synoptic Gospels is Luke 23:34: ‘And they parted his raiment, and cast lots’.

The odd one out is John 19:23–24, where it is explained:

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, ‘Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be’. (KJV)

In the visual tradition, John’s account is both the most helpful and the one most commonly illustrated, although the obvious hint offered by the division of the garments into four parts is seldom picked up on, and there tend to be three soldiers instead of four.

A literal reading of Mark and Luke would lead one to presume that the garments were unevenly divided, and that the casting of lots was designed to determine who received the biggest share. Matthew is more ambiguous, but its suggestion seems to be that—as in John—the parting of the garments and the casting of lots are successive actions. By contrast, John clearly indicates that Christ’s garments were parted, and only then were lots cast for the seamless coat in a winner-takes-all scenario.

A different element of choice arises in connection with what these garments are. In all four Gospels, when Jesus is mocked and crowned with thorns, he is attired in fine clothes (in Matthew 27:28, his robe is ‘scarlet’; in Mark 15:17, ‘they clothed him with purple’; and in Luke 23:11, the robe is ‘gorgeous’; while lastly in John 19:2, it is once again ‘purple’), but there is an important divergence concerning what Christ wears on his way to the place Luke simply calls ‘The Skull’ (Kranion, translated Calvariae in the Latin Vulgate), and consequently concerning what is divided. Both Matthew and Mark explicitly state that the scarlet or purple raiment was taken off after his mocking, and that Christ was reclothed in his own garments, but Luke and John do not, thus leaving us to assume he carries the cross to Golgotha in his finery.  

In the three paintings shown here, we cannot fail to be struck by the artists’ very different interpretations of both the robe and of the soldiers who cast lots for it. Andrea Vanni’s seems to be the fine robe in which Christ was mocked, for all that it is blue rather than scarlet or purple. It is a luxurious garment, which straightforwardly explains the interest the soldiers have in it. They hold it in a cruciform position, so that it seems visually to echo the body from which it has been stripped, although there is a bitter irony in the fact that they treat it with greater respect. The episode forms a lively detail in a larger dramatic scene.

By comparison with Vanni’s, Andrea Mantegna’s treatment of the Crucifixion is more contemplative—the eyes of Christ and the thieves are closed, which may signify that they are dead, with the two latter’s open mouths perhaps indicating that they have just given up their last breaths. A number of the soldiers are returning to Jerusalem, which is visible in the distance, but others of their number share the scene’s contemplative air. While three of them are variously seated and kneeling on the ground—the seated one has three dice in his right hand and is about to throw them onto a circular shield—a fourth is holding the robe, and appears to be discussing it (perhaps its seamlessness) with another, possibly more senatorial, Roman.

There is nothing contemplative about Bernardino Luini’s remarkable depiction of a ferocious struggle for the robe. Here, too, dicing has been taking place on a shield, but the dice have been discarded, that mode of dispute resolution seeming to have failed. If the robe can be read as a proxy for Christ’s body itself (as perhaps also in Vanni’s rendition of it), then it is here about to receive similarly brutal treatment.

Next exhibition: Matthew 27:37 Next exhibition: Mark 15:26 Next exhibition: Luke 23:38 Next exhibition: John 19:26–27

Matthew 27:35–36; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23–25a

Revised Standard Version

Matthew 27

35And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; 36then they sat down and kept watch over him there.

Mark 15

24And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.

Luke 23

34And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.

John 19

23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfil the scripture,

“They parted my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”

25 So the soldiers did this.