The Crucifixion by Andrea Mantegna

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

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The Die is Cast

Commentary by

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)

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