January 22, 2009

On Taddeo Gaddi’s Crucifixion and Lamentation

Diana Kalitzin


The Black Plague swiftly killed around a third of the population in Europe starting in the 1340s; some consider the Great Famine of 1315-17 even more horrible as it was a device of slow and painful end. The frequent encounter with death, sorrow and physical weakness brought a more tangible and acute awareness of Christ’s suffering. The torments of the disastrous time are reflected in the sagged, lifeless, skeletal body of Christ to such an extreme that it provokes an agonizing kinesthetic sensation even in a modern atheistic viewer such as myself.

Crucifixion and Lamentation is a small-scale (52.4x27cm), private devotional panel-painting, now in Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery, purchased through Sotheby’s in 1959 from the collection of Charles Loeser, Torre Gattaia, Florence.[1] The panel is divided into two registers – the upper illustrates Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and the lower – the moment after the Deposition – the Lamentation. The medium is tempera on gilded poplar panel. The work dates c.1355 and is attributed to the Florentine artist Taddeo Gaddi (c.1300-1366), best known for his apprenticeship at Giotto’s workshop.[2]

The purpose of the devotional images, like this one, was mainly to educate the illiterate through immediate visual information, to stimulate faith and make the worshipers reach a state of meditation. By reducing the number of figures, Taddeo relies on the simplicity of the design to convey the main story in short and as clearly as possible. The result is a direct and accessible image. The modest size of the panel gave me a clue that it has been used as a portable panel; and therefore, the probability of having some ornamental design on the verso was extremely high. If the object is conceived to be handled and seen from all sides, the artist has an interest in making it aesthetically appealing all around.

The frame shape recalls arched Gothic windows. Perhaps it was intended to be like a window unto the scenes of the Crucifixion and Lamentation. The top portion of the panel is a pointed trefoil. The gables engage astutely culminating in a trefoil finial, which acts as a medallion. ‘Threefold arrangements, such as a three-light window, a trefoil, or triangle, ordinarily symbolise the Trinity when found in Christian art.’[3] The damaged image of the medallion sets a question on the blurred identity boundaries of the Three Persons of the Trinity. This frontal figure points to a book, which has diminutive traces of gold. Due to the fact that both, Father and Son, appear holding a book, and also, may be depicted of similar age and facial characteristics, only the shapes of the halos can be a clue to Their identifications.[4]

The episode, common to all Gospels, is the Crucifixion – the end of Christ’s human life on the Cross. In Crucifixion and Lamentation His eyes are closed (Christus Patiens – ‘suffering Christ’). ‘[The] human nature of the Lord [becomes] the principal object of pious meditation… Christ was now accorded an anima, a human soul.’[5] His torso is pierced on the right side, which has a symbolic value of being greater than the left. Christ’s hands and feet are still nailed to the wood. Short spurts of blood drip down, while his lifeless, pale body subsides and curves out. He is covered only with a sheer loincloth. The mood is quiet, somber, and even breathless. Christ is the picture’s dramatic focal point. His emaciated naked body silhouettes sharply against the golden background, and contrasts on the stability and mass of the surrounding figures. I have the impression that the grief is restrained within the faces of the Virgin Mary, St Mary Magdalene and St John the Evangelist. Mary and John stand monumentally on each side of the Saviour creating a rigorous symmetrical composition. He is so close to them – only the space of gold, or celestial realm, separates them from one another. Imaginary lines enclose the figures in stable geometrical forms – a square (fig.1), similar and equilateral triangles. (fig. 2, 3) The arrangement is harmonious – the negative space mirrors the shape of the trefoil finial. I magnified the medallion and put it in the fitting top frame of the panel. By increasing the transparency, I came across an apparition of Christ on the Cross as Christus Triumphans. [6] (fig.4)

fig.1

fig.3

fig.4

The pelican is a Christian symbol of self-sacrifice and unselfish love. A graceful white and pure bird has opened her wings and stabs her own flesh to provide sustenance in the form of blood, streaking directly to the young. This act echoes the scene of the Crucifixion that takes place just below the nest. The bird protectively stands over her vulnerable offspring casting an iconic image of maternal love. This bend is mirrored in Christ’s position of the head in the upper register and also in the way Mary embraces Him. The pelican’s nest is on the Tree of Life, rooted on the top of the Cross. It is a reference to the new life and Christ’s Resurrection. The vertical axis continues through the red plate with a Greek Christogram, IC XS, down through the Savior’s body and reaches the foot of Golgotha. This hill, where Adam was buried, is so small in comparison to the surrounding figures. They are out of proportion, greater and bigger than nature. The dark and grey rocky formation has sharp edges and a threatening look, suggesting its association with death. The skull of the first man is placed just below the Cross. It shares the color of the rock and only its roundness makes it stand out. Streaks of blood flow down and connect visually Christ to the skull. Here, Adam represents mankind in need of redemption through the death of Christ.

Taddeo uses a limited range of colors, arranging them by putting darker values next to lighter. The monumental bodies are lost in drapery. During the 13th and 14th century Italy is an important distribution center for silk coming from the Middle East and China. The artists begin to show more interest in the rendering of shimmering, luxurious fabrics. Taddeo’s colors are bright and saturated. The shadows clearly indicate that the source of light comes from up above Mary. The color of the flesh is rendered with blue, green and lead white tempera, giving a sense of coldness and death. Innumerable brushstrokes model the faces and reflections of light.

Christ’s head is turned to the right where Mary stands. This alludes to His last words as an earthly man and confirms Mary’s status of an immediate intercessor to the Divine. The image of the Virgin Mary derives from the Byzantine icons, which were widely introduced to Italy during the 13th century.[7]  She is depicted with long nose, oval face, small mouth, elongated body, cold tonality of the skin, and a degree of self-restraint. Mary is in a dynamic and engaging three-quarter view. The eyes give away her sadness and distress. She is dressed in her customary blue garment. In fact, this deep cosmic blue is reserved just for her. I used the word cosmic as I noticed that four-pointed stars embellish Mary’s tunic on the top of her head and shoulder. The drapery hems of golden floral patterns, which frame her face, resemble the delicately incised tracery framework. This choice for design signifies her importance. Mary’s constant presence in Christian art has a very important role – to venerate the existence of Christ’s human mother and along with this to underline Christ’s own humanity.[8] Christ is the One of dual nature – divine and human – being the Son of God and Mary. The mother points in the direction of her son, and yet, her fingers are turned upward, towards God. I find her gesture as a signal for the duality of Christ’s existence – his divine and purely human side. (fig. 5) Her incised golden disc consists of two external and two internal rings, connected with concentric compass marks, which suggest radiance of light. All mourners are adorned with the same seal of holiness. Christ’s halo is cruciferous with floral incisions.

fig. 2, 5, 6

St John the Evangelist was Christ’s most favorite disciple, and respectively, the one He chose to entrust His mother to after His death. John’s importance is reconfirmed by his placement along Mary in this extremely simplified four-figure Crucifixion scene. Mary Magdalene is in her usual red garment. Her most easily recognizable feature is the loosely flowing, wavy hair. She is identified as the woman who anointed the Savior’s feet at the house of Simon and wiped them with her long hair. This act signifies the remorse for her wrongdoing after Christ cast out seven devils off her soul. She has thrown herself at Christ’s feet. Her body constructs a dynamic diagonal. (fig. 6) Mary Magdalene’s ardent yellow-vermilion tunic, falling down in angular folds, mimics the shape of Golgotha and reinforces the intensity of Christ’s streaks of blood. The red speaks of the blood, shed by Christ. Her pose acts as a mediator to the lower register, where the massive Giottesque figures of the mourners overwhelm the scene in tense compositional rhythm.

The gilded flat background was an intention to depict light and celestial realm, to radiate splendor. The foil is worn out in places and this allows me to see the ground of red-brown clay, which leaves a warm tone to the gold. ‘The edges of the indented lines or punchmarks catch the light – which would originally have included flickering candlelight – making the gold sparkle and shimmer.’[9] Incised four-petalled trefoil corollas repeat rhythmically along the band following the curving lobes of the pointed frame. Continuous lines of indented dots run in concave designs, ending with pinnacles of tiny trefoils. The lower register is separated with its own less elaborate lines of dots that enclose five-petalled rosette impressions. The execution lacks precision – the incision is shifted to the left where it almost merges with the actual frame. This can suggest the input of an assistant from his shop.

The Lamentation scene is an adaptation to a small format from the right wing of the Berlin Triptych (1334, Berlin Gemäldegalerie).[10] This is a group composition depicting the pale Holy mourners, who kneel down to weep over Christ. Their gazes draw the viewer’s attention to the spiritual center of the composition – Christ. (fig. 7) His body is positioned in such a way that the bloody wounds are displayed. It is an interesting fact that none of the Gospels mentions about a moment of lamenting over the dead. This moment comes into existence out of a funeral custom [11], fulfilling a need of proximity with the dead before parting. The certain level of facial generalization can be an aid to faith – the viewers could see themselves as Holy Mourners. The Virgin Mary supports the upper part of Christ’s body on both knees and embraces Him in an organic unity. Such a loss could easily be re-enacted in the viewer’s imagination; due to the high rate of child mortality, this would have not been a foreign experience. The embrace recalls the image of the Virgin and Child, but this time Mary’s hand leads my eyes to the very confirmation of Christ death – His chest wound. The area around Joseph, Mary and Jesus suffers the most from flaking, abrasion and restorative corrections in this fairly preserved panel. St Joseph, Christ’s human father, kneels in prayer. John is about to kiss the Saviour’s bleeding right hand. Mary Magdalene presses his feet against her cheek. Taddeo adds two other female figures. One is said to be Mary Cleophas, Virgin Mary’s own sister. The mourner in black holds Christ’s left hand, which is slightly elongated even further to make that possible. The grouping suggests the union of the faithful. They encircle the Son of God with their solid bodies. Their pallid faces and hands share a common death experience. Taddeo designs a subtle illusion of depth by overlapping the figures on several layers. The anointing stone, now in the shape of a sarcophagus, ‘recedes’ the picture plane. I call his rendering of depth subtle, because I get the sense the artist is not as interested in the illusion of space as he is in the stage-like display. In Crucifixion and Lamentation the grief is restrained and silenced, perhaps, by the awareness of the Salvation being contained in this Death. ‘He dies on the Cross as man and in dying, as God, overcomes death.’[12]

fig.7

This piece is simple in mass, color and design as it is in content. Its frame outlines a Gothic church window onto two sacred scenes that are to be viewed in a private domestic setting. How powerful was this piece for a trecento viewer, who was not bombarded with images as I am today, and who was incessantly stalked by the physical and psychological torments of death? It was precious for its richness of celestial gold and intense colors, and for its ability to enliven and comfort the fearful eye of the beholder in one’s own search for Redemption.

 


 

Bibliography:

Dunkerton, Jill et al. Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in The National Gallery. New Haven/London: Yale University Press/National Gallery Publications, 1991.

Hulme, Edward. The History Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1909.

Ladis, Andrew, ‘The Bristol Crucifixion’. Taddeo Gaddi: Critical Reappraisal and Catalogue Raisonné. Columbia, MO/London: University of Missouri Press, 1982.

Os, Henk van. The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500. Trans. Michael Doyle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Schiller, Gertrud, Iconography of Christian Art: The Passion of Jesus Christ. Vol. II. Trans. Janet Seligman. London: Lund Humphries, 1971.

Speake, Jennifer, ‘Trinity’. The Dent Dictionary of Symbols in Christian Art. London: J. M. Dent, 1994.

Williamson, Beth. Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford Press, 2004.


[1] Andrew Ladis, ‘The Bristol Crucifixion’, Taddeo Gaddi: Critical Reappraisal and Catalogue Raisonné (Columbia, MO/London: University of Missouri Press, 1982), p. 211.

[2]Museum Label.

[3] Edward Hulme, The History Principles and Practice of Symbolism in Christian Art (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1909), p.10.

[4] Jennifer Speake, ‘Trinity’, The Dent Dictionary of Symbols in Christian Art (London: J. M. Dent, 1994), p. 145-146.

[5]Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe 1300-1500 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 164.

[6] This is the traditional representation of Christ on the Cross till the Iconoclastic Controversy of 726-843 in the Byzantine Church.

[7] Beth Williamson, Christian Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford Press, 2004), p. 16.

[8] Williamson, p.15.

[9] Jill Dunkerton, et al., Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in The National Gallery (New Haven/London: Yale University Press/National Gallery Publications, 1991), p. 175.

[10] Andrew Ladis, p. 211.

[11] Gertrud Schiller, ‘The Lamentation’, Iconography of Christian Art: The Passion of Jesus Christ. Vol. II. Trans. Janet Seligman. (London: Lund Humphries, 1971), p. 174.

[12] Gertrud Schiller, ‘The Crucifixion’, Iconography of Christian Art: The Passion of Jesus Christ. Vol. II. Trans. Janet Seligman. (London: Lund Humphries, 1971), p. 93.