In contrast to early representations of the Crucifixion, where Christ often stands triumphantly in front of the cross, the late-medieval fondness for revivifying—and thereby personalizing—the humiliations to which he was subjected led to an explosion of interest in the production of evocative corporeal imagery. In this instance, having been flagellated and scourged, Christ hangs lifelessly on the cross, his body marked from head to foot by a series of prominent bruises and lacerations. In addition to the crown of thorns, which has caused droplets of blood to trickle downwards onto his face and chest, the wounds in his hand, feet, and side are marked by a series of more pronounced streams of blood that, perhaps inevitably, imbue the composition with a certain eucharistic quality. It succeeds thus in offering viewers an opportunity to engage in a process affective meditation—encouraging them to affix their attentions on the relationship between Christ’s body and their own—while focusing on the importance of Communion as a mechanism for reinforcing the collective values of the community.
The reactions of those gathered are highly thought-provoking. As St John looks upwards and prays, tears of sorrow streaming visibly down his face, the women around him look downwards towards the ground, unable to contemplate the brutalization of the figure before them. Offering a curt reminder of the difficulty involved in accepting the death of a loved one, Mary Magdalene clings desperately to the foot of the cross. The bones by her side serve partly as a reference to the inevitability of death and partly as a mechanism for identifying the location of the Crucifixion as Golgotha, which in Hebrew means ‘place of the skull’. Since the bones could also, however, be those of Adam, who was believed to have been buried on Golgotha, it may be that the artist sought to engage in a process of deliberate contrast and comparison, setting the emotional reluctance of those gathered against the doctrinal necessity of Christ’s sacrifice, which effectively rights the wrong committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
In its present form, the Crucifixion is arranged as the central panel of a triptych, flanked on the left by a representation of the Road to Calvary and on the right by a treatment of the Lamentation, where Mary cradles the dead Christ in her arms as if he were somehow still an infant. This arrangement offers a robust sense of chronological and narrative coherence, inviting viewers to engage sequentially with the events of the Passion while empathizing with Christ on his journey from life to death. It is likely, however, that the panels were once part of a larger composition, probably a multi-panelled retable or altarpiece offering a fuller treatment of the life of Christ or the cult of the saints.
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The Durham Master (active in the Burgos area in the early sixteenth century).
Early sixteenth century.
Medium and Support
Oil on panel.
168 x 102 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Donated by John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, Sixth Viscount Gort, 1934.
Sinclair Family, Scotland; Crowther, Syon Lodge; Lord Gort, who presented the altarpiece to Durham Cathedral.
The Galilee Chapel, Durham Cathedral.
Chandler Rathfon Post, A History of Spanish Painting, IX: The Beginning of the Renaissance in Castile and Leon (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1947), pp. 587–93;
Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño, La pintura española fuera de España: historia y catálogo (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1958), p. 141 (no. 669);
Eric Young, Four Centuries of Spanish Painting: 17th June – 17th September 1967, The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham (Gateshead: Team Valley Printers, 1967), pp. 19–20 (no. 15);
Andy Beresford, ‘Durham Cathedral: The Galilee Chapel Altarpiece’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), pp. 102–11.