Joos van Cleve and a Collaborator, Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor

First half of 16th cent.
Oil on wood
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.469. Bequest of Eva F. Kollsman.

The dramatic emphasis of medieval Crucifixions is here modulated into the central panel's feeling of emotional exhaustion. The dead body is drained, emaciated, the face turning to white. Mary continues to pray, but her eyes are now cast down to the skull and bones at the foot of the cross. That symbol had been used in early Crucifixions to remind the viewer that Christ is the second Adam, the one who conquers death. But here the bones are crossed, as in the symbol often seen in graveyards, and the skull is sadly literal. No centurion gestures "surely this was the Son of God." Instead, John's gestures with empty hands. In the background, Christ's limp body is hauled into a cave, while weary townspeople tread the long road back to Jerusalem.

But in response to these emotional values the painting offers an intellectual comment through a number of features that emphasize the contemporary "Age of Grace." The artist's "Jerusalem" features the architecture of Antwerp and the low countries. The saints on the outer panels represent the progress of time, from John "the Forerunner" through the martyred Catherine to Anthony of Padua and Nicholas of Tolentino, who was canonized only in 1446. Most important, the donor kneeling in the foreground, consoled by another contemporary, gazes not at the cross but into the middle distance with a serenity that is the complementary opposite of the exhaustion in the central panel's other figures.

The saints in the outer panels can be identified by their attributes: John the Baptist (lamb on left forearm, tunic seemingly of camel skin); Catherine of Alexandria (sword, wheel); Anthony of Padua (Christ Child on book, crucifix, gray Franciscan habit); and Nicholas of Tolentino (black Augustinian habit, flowering lily stalk, plate with bread).

Detail: The left panel
Detail: The right panel

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Read more about images of the Crucifixion.
Read more about images of St. John the Baptist, St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. John the Evangelist, St. Anthony of Padua, and St. Nicholas of Tolentino.

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.