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’.
26When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.