Art Thoughts, Week 46: David & Conflict

Crucifixion Scene with the Virgin, St. John and the Magdalene, Gerard David, Netherlandish (1460—1523), oil on panel, BF123.

Even when writing about paintings, auto-pilot can attempt to take over. Whether through routine, boredom, distraction or stereotypes, occasionally the same words, the same thoughts, the same associations float to the top. For this particular painting, Crucifixion by David (pronounced Dah-veed), that particular temptation to be rote came from genre. This is firstly a religious painting, and secondly a crucifixion: a genre so ubiquitous as to elicit a whole corral of pre-programmed expectations. Ironically, my sculpture professor used to say the hardest thing to depict seriously in art is the cross: it’s just been done too many times, and too often poorly. But even though this happens, one must keep looking, and keep writing. 

The important question which finally emerges is what is there about this painting’s unique voice which helps it rise above the babble? By what aspect does this piece distinguish itself? Though an academician, and subject to the whims of his patrons, David was nonetheless his own person, and most importantly his own painter. Otherwise (to grow momentarily snarky) how would one know if it was a Van der Weyden, Tintoretto or Gaugin crucifixion that we were looking at? You get the point: aesthetic signature is important; primary, even.

But what else – any particular emotional undercurrent which pulls or pushes the painting in one direction or another? There is such within this painting, animating it…and there is a companion set of color choices by David (supported by convention) which set up both a support and a denial of that emotional portrayal. In other words, the painting’s components take sides. Another professor of mine, this time in literature, stated that all fiction, at its core, has a driving force of conflict behind it. It is a raw touchstone for humanness. And really, what more conflicted scene could one imagine for a 15th century Christian? They, along with the figures here, are stuck between a promise and a reality. That is, the promise of resurrection and renewal, and the harsh reality of an expiring fleshly form.

To illustrate the basic conflict, look at two of the figures. The emotional conflict is primarily represented in the central figure, Mary the mother of Jesus. (Mary Magdalene, the third in the group, is sometimes shown at the foot of the cross, but the scriptural reference supports this being the Virgin, since John is comforting her). Not only is her entire gesture and weight attempting to hold Jesus down, but also the darkest colors in the painting are found in her cloak, causing the greatest balance of weight – compositionally and emotionally – to be on her side. And this makes sense: it is before the resurrection, when reality holds sway. Her emotional response of wrapping around the cross and Jesus’ feet and holding on for dear life, accentuates the necessity of Christ’s eventual ascent – here signified iconically by his outstretched arms, seeming like not so much a crucifixion as an attempt to fly up into the air, right then and there.

John the disciple, the figure on the left, is opposed to Mary emotionally and by color. He rushes in (by evidence of his flying, flaming cloak) and comforts Mary with the promise aspect of the equation –while likely being unconvinced of its verity. With his shocking crimson coat, he represents the passion with which he takes up the duty of looking after Jesus’ mother Mary…despite the doubt; he shows why he is the “disciple whom Jesus loved”: he is devoted despite overt emotion.

Mary Magdalene represents, I believe, the place where most viewers will (and should) find themselves (knowing, after all, how the story ends): at the place of sorrowful readiness. She has a vessel which most likely holds the embalming spices for the burial. That is, she is neither pinioning the promise like Mary, nor bemoaning the reality like John…she is rather, prepared to move on and step into the future, regardless of what the details may determine. She remains, after everything, that belittled – but far from little – giant of faith.

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