A painting recently caught my attention – Giotto’s Crucifixion, from the large cycle of his frescoes found in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The gaunt figure of the Saviour, poignantly emaciated, hangs on a cross that stands on a rudely painted rock below which we see a skull – indicating that this is Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull.”
On Christ’s left, the Roman soldiers argue over which of them can have his clothing, while St. Peter looks on sadly. On Christ’s right are the righteous. Mary, Mother of Jesus, supported by the holy women and comforted by St. John, faints from sorrow and pain. At Christ’s feet, Mary Magdalene weeps on the bloody wounds of Jesus with intense grief. Her distress is reflected in the cries of the angels, soaring over Christ’s body in Giotto’s dark blue sky.
The artist was influenced by sacred theatre, as well as by the ideal of empathic piety preached by the mendicant orders of his time, such as the Franciscans. Paintings, like this one, were intended to help people look at the scene as if they had been personal witnesses to the Crucifixion itself, in order to feel more intensely the nature of Christ’s suffering. The juxtaposition of those who are grieving and the soldiers attempts to focus the thoughts of the pious on the consequences of their own responses to Christ’s death.
“The Crucifixion of Giotto,” writes Bernadette Neipp, “is the expression of Franciscan spirituality in the gentleness of the expression of pain in Christ’s face in this fresco. He is not wearing the crown of thorns; a halo shines behind his head … The tragic aspect is expressed by those who surround Christ: the angels that fly weeping around the Crucified One, Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross, Mary supported by John and another woman … The entire scene stands out before a sky of deep blue – the colour of faith. The emphasis is on the sacrificial meaning of Christ’s death – the angels collect the blood that flows from his wounds. In his approach to the depiction of the crucifixion, Giotto had a huge influence on those who came after him, especially when it came to composition.”
The composition of The Crucifixion is perfectly symmetrical. The cross, placed precisely in the centre, separates the two groups of people. The ten heavenly angels are placed almost geometrically in two groups of five on each side of the cross.
“O my people,
what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Georges Morin, OFM