Christ on the Cross by Albrecht Dürer

Albrecht Dürer

Christ on the Cross, 1506, Oil on linden wood panel, 20 x 16 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Gal.-Nr. 1870, akg-images

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Beholding Life and Death

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

In this small painting, Albrecht Dürer concentrates the attention of the viewer on the lone figure of Christ. There is no trace of the expected crowd of figures, including Mary his mother, Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and soldiers, all of whom are usually depicted in attendance at Christ’s crucifixion. It is as though they are absent, or we (raised up as Christ is) are seeing over their heads.

The viewer of this intimate work is drawn in to be the only witness, to contemplate and grasp the meaning of this harrowing death. The sky has darkened into a thick descending blackness that seems about to eclipse even the dimly rendered horizon. Hope has been extinguished. The space is compressed and claustrophobic. There is nowhere else to look except at this dying human form.

Yet in contrast to this downward fall of black sky there is a clear counterpoint. The depiction of the Christ figure also suggests, if only metaphorically, a turn upward. Christ’s eyes are raised towards the heavens, and the warm radiance reflecting from his body is luminous against the sky. In this enveloping cosmic darkness—high and lifted up—Christ is a light for the world.

We also notice the loincloths that surround his hips have responded to an awakening breeze. As Christ expels his last breath, it is as though there is at the same moment a sudden influx of air, which like the verdant trees behind, welcomes this wind of change—like when a grave is opened, and the stench of death is replaced by the fresh air of hope.

Dürer has created in this work a compressed and intensely personal space of contemplation that leaves viewers hovering in their imagination between life and death. The figure carries the physical signs of both. Even as Christ breathes his last on Good Friday, there is already a premonition of the rising life of Easter Sunday.

It is an intimate viewing experience, and yet the painting’s setting of a single central figure against a dramatic landscape anticipates the sublimity of the Romantic tradition. The Latin inscription along the bottom of the work—‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’—elides Christ’s journey to the dead with his journey to the Father. The contemplation of this process of death and life playing itself out in the body of Christ invites the viewer into that same journey.

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