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.
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.
24And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.
34And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments.
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; 24so 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,