Scenes from the Passion of Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Descent into Limbo by Andrea Vanni

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

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Drawing Straws

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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).

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