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

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

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

Bernardino Luini

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

‘They Parted My Garments Among Them’

Comparative Commentary by

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.