The Virgin and the Cross
Commentary by Nicholas Penny
This small altarpiece was made for a new chancel screen in the church of San Domenico in Cremona by Boccaccio Boccaccino probably in the first years of the sixteenth century. It is unusual in several respects.
Firstly, two prominent figures—one holding a large sword on the left and the other mounted and wearing armour on the right—appear to be portraits and it is more usual for such figures to be depicted at prayer, witnesses of a sacred event rather than participants (apparently in this case among the Romans presiding over the Crucifixion). It was also very unusual for the subject of Christ carrying the Cross to be employed for an altarpiece. But this is not the only subject. The most beautiful part of the painting is the group of women around the collapsed figure of the Virgin Mary in the right foreground: a composition of great fluency with internal rhyming supplied by deliberate repetition in the hands.
The most prominent figure in the painting is St John standing in the centre and dividing the composition into separate parts. It is striking that he is in the very pose which was usually given to him by artists when they painted him standing beside the cross. A beautiful drawing survives for the Virgin Mary which differs in that her whole figure is represented. There is in addition no real unity to the painting, even though what we see on the right can be understood as a reaction to what we see on the left.
One explanation for this may be that the subject of the painting underwent a major change whilst it was being planned. Some support for this hypothesis may be found in the fact that some parts of the painting (notably the figures in the landscape) seem to be hastily improvised, whereas others (notably the armour with its reflections) are rendered with painstaking care.
Either way, although the Crucifixion itself is yet to come, it seems almost already to be adumbrated here in the posture of the beloved disciple, and the distress of the Blessed Virgin.
Non Stabat Mater
Commentary by Nicholas Penny
This painting is one of the greatest works of Lorenzo Lotto: the main altarpiece in the Church of Santa Maria della Pietà in the small hilltop town of Monte San Giusto in the Italian Marche. It is clearly visible as soon as you enter the Church. I have only seen it twice in my life and on both occasions I was quite alone with this overwhelming work.
In all the books on Lotto, this is described as a painting of the Crucifixion which is of course correct—or at least not incorrect. It is a narrative painting like that by Jacopo di Cione (elsewhere in this exhibition) and includes many episodes, in this case notably including the man charged with piercing Christ’s side (whom tradition names Longinus), who is healed of his blindness by a spurt of blood from Christ’s side. But if it is to be given a title it should surely be The Swooning of the Virgin Mary.
She is the foremost figure and among the largest, whereas her crucified son is among the smallest and most distant. Moreover, the donor who commissioned the painting is included in it, kneeling on the left looking not at Christ but at the terrible spectacle of Mary’s suffering—also catching the eye of St John who is brilliantly attired in scarlet and green. John is now no longer separate from the Virgin Mary but supports her.
The church is dedicated to Santa Maria della Pietà. The Pietà usually refers to images of the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ on her lap but the Swooning of the Virgin was often identified with the Pietà. Mary faces us so we can witness her grief but there is a suggestion that she has turned as she collapses. She has not yet fallen to the ground although it is impossible to believe that she can be stopped. Her arms are held out so that she herself assumes a crucified pose and the purply black and white of her garments bring the miraculous darkening of the sky—darkness which begins to cover the top of the cross—into the lower and nearer parts of the painting.
To Tremble, Tremble, Tremble
Commentary by Nicholas Penny
This exquisite small altarpiece of the late fourteenth century is most notable for the preservation of its frame. It enshrines, in addition to the main subject, numerous saints, and, in the centre of the plinth or predella, a tondo of the Virgin and Child.
But, for the purpose of this commentary, I want to concentrate on the way that the Crucifixion is treated.
The devils removing the soul of the bad thief and the angels collecting Christ’s blood from the wounds in his hands and side suggest a mystical or at least symbolic treatment rather than a narrative one, but in fact numerous details from all the Gospel accounts are included, including some which were often omitted: the breaking of the legs of the thieves (John 19:32) and the sponge soaked in vinegar raised on a pole (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:29). In the foreground on the left the soldiers are shown contesting for Christ’s robe (Matthew 27:35–36; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34; John 19:23–24) which one of them holds, while, on the right, the high priest and scribes deride Christ who has not saved himself despite claiming divinity (Matthew 27:41–43; Mark 15:31–32).
Only in the centre of the foreground do we see what no pictorial narrative treatment omits: the Virgin Mary, together with a group of other women and Saint John. They are beside the cross—‘juxta crucem’, to quote the most famous of all Christian hymns, the Stabat Mater composed in Latin in the thirteenth century.
It is widely assumed that Saint John was referring to himself when he recorded that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ was present at this moment (19:26–27) and so Saint John is always present in narrative paintings of this subject. It was already by this date a well-established convention to depict the Virgin as in need of support and to represent John looking at her with distress, cradling his cheek with his right hand and supporting his right elbow with his left arm.
Like the Stabat Mater, such depictions invited the viewer to enter into the sufferings of those on Golgotha, and especially the mother who (in the hymn’s words) ‘mourned’, and ‘grieved’, and ‘trembled’.
Boccaccio Boccaccino :
Christ Carrying the Cross and the Virgin Mary Swooning, c.1501 , Oil on wood
Lorenzo Lotto :
The Crucifixion, 1531 , Oil on wood
Jacopo di Cione :
The Crucifixion, c.1369–70 , Egg tempera on wood
Standing and Swooning
Comparative commentary by Nicholas Penny
The Spasimo, or Swooning, of the Virgin Mary when she saw Christ carrying the Cross, has no biblical authority. All that is mentioned in the Gospels is that Christ passed the weeping ‘daughters of Jerusalem’ (Luke 23:28); but that Mary was among them was mentioned in apocryphal literature (Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate) and was given greater currency by the Franciscan custodians of the pilgrim sites in the Holy Land where, by 1350, a church had been erected commemorating the place where she saw him carrying the cross and lost consciousness. By 1500, sculptures of the Spasimo were included in the reconstructions of the sites of the passion made in Italy by returning pilgrims, but no altarpiece of this subject earlier than that by Boccaccio Boccaccino is known to me. Soon thereafter it became popular chiefly on account of Raphael’s altarpiece sent to Sicily and known as the Spasimo di Sicilia.
In paintings of the Crucifixion made between 1300 and 1500, the Virgin is frequently shown swooning, as in the painting here attributed to Jacopo di Cione. One could claim that she is still on her feet and may recover before she falls to the ground. That is certainly not the case in Lorenzo Lotto’s later painting where she has clearly lost consciousness. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, the Virgin is described as having been at the foot of the cross together with other women (and to these the Gospel of John adds ‘the beloved disciple’; John 19:26–27). They are present in both paintings of the Crucifixion discussed here. Lotto, however, doubtless prompted by Christ’s request to this disciple that he adopt Mary as his mother, has made John the principal supporter of the Virgin, thus illustrating dramatically what that responsibility entails.
Some theologians had concerns about the way that artists depicted the Virgin swooning at the Crucifixion, as we know from a printed letter, dated 17 July 1506, addressed to Pope Julius II della Rovere by Tomasso de Vio Cajetan (or Gaetano after his native city of Gaeta) an eminent Dominican who was later created Cardinal Cajetan. De Vio observed that the Gospel of John explicitly stated (John 19:25) that Christ’s mother stood beside the Cross. Her standing there was indeed the subject of the Stabat Mater which commences, in the most familiar translation, with the words ‘At the Cross her station keeping / Stood the mournful mother weeping’.
De Vio seems to have anticipated a negative response from the Pope (who was a Franciscan, and in favour of establishing a feast day to celebrate Mary’s suffering) and he urged that, if the petition for an official feast did receive the Pope’s sanction, then it should not coincide with Easter Sunday or Palm Sunday. De Vio did also observe that if Mary managed to stand beside the Cross—an act of extraordinary endurance—then it would surely be surprising for her to have fainted on other occasions. But clearly what mattered most to him was her conduct, as described in the Gospel of John. If, as seems possible, Boccaccino had planned a painting of the Crucifixion with the Virgin fallen to the ground, then that would have met with objections, especially from the Dominicans. The artist, obliged to select another episode, may then have invented a new altarpiece subject.
The Dominican theologians believed that the Virgin Mary suffered with her full mind. The Franciscans felt that our sympathy for her would be increased by the depiction of physical infirmity. Theological debates do not always take account of artistic conventions but artists, for obvious reasons, favoured the representation of physical over mental distress because it had more visible impact. Several influential authorities towards the end of the sixteenth century continued to object to the depiction of the Virgin as collapsed or unconscious at the Crucifixion and Federico Borromeo in his De Pictura Sacra of 1624 deplored the convention. We know that at least one altarpiece was removed from a Church and one print censored in the early years of the seventeenth century for this reason, but it seems that the decision was made not to eradicate an image of such popularity—an operation which would have entailed the removal of thousands of paintings.
Either way, whether revered for an endurance that kept her standing, or adored for a love that felled her, Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross invites us to consider the acuteness of her pain, as Simeon’s prophecy comes to its fruition: ‘and a sword shall pierce through your own soul also’ (Luke 2:35).
Hamburgh, Harvey E. 1981. ‘The Problem of Lo Spasimo of the Virgin in Cinquecento Paintings of the Descent from the Cross’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 12.4: 45–75
Spivey Ellington, Donna. 2001. From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul: Understanding Mary in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Washington DC: CUA Press)