Zurbarán. A New Perspective
From 9 June to 13 September 2015
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The work of this anonymous artist of the first half of the 15th century is characterised by his use of International Gothic stylistic devices in the composition of his paintings. The long, narrow format suggests that the panel may have formed part of a triptych or diptych in which the artist made use of its shape to depict the cross and organise the space on the front face. We thus see Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in the upper level, lowering Christ’s body from the cross, while the lower left area depicts the Virgin with Saint John and the Holy Women and the right side, a group of elegantly dressed men. The Virgin’s suffering is the principal motif in the lower part of the panel, reflecting accounts of her fainting to be found in religious texts. The subject on the reverse of the panel is unusual: Christ on the route to Calvary looks at a nun who walks behind him, also bearing a cross. The subject is derived from a late medieval poem of the early 15th century that is included in the lower part of the composition.
This panel, which is painted on both sides, may be the wing of a diptych or a triptych. Making full use of the space with its long, narrow format, the artist depicted a tall cross with a particularly long vertical shaft around which various groups create the narrative. The upper part of the composition is occupied by Christ whose body is shown spotted with small drops of blood and with still open wounds. He is being lifted down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus who support him at the level of the torso and hip. These figures are barely able to maintain their balance on the steps of the ladder whose instability is emphasised by their uncertain hold on it. Towards the bottom, at the foot of the cross, the artist placed the figures in small groups that fill the space and which are arranged in diagonals. Of the three groups, the one with the Virgin is most notable for its size and position. She is shown as having fainted and is assisted by two female saints and Saint John, who together fill the lower left corner. On the right are three men in costly dress, two of them commenting on the events as one points out the scene to the other. The figure types are short in stature with an emphasis on detail such as the borders of the garments, the decoration of the sword sheathes and other elements such as the reverse side of the tunics. The artist also made efforts to highlight the figure of Saint John among all the figures in the composition through the use of less standardised features.
The reverse of the panel has an unusual subject comprising the reproduction of a poem with its illustration above. Christ on the route to Calvary drags the cross with both hands as he turns to look at a nun who follows him, also bearing a heavy cross. According to the text, which is a late medieval poem, Christ exhorted a nun to take up her cross and follow him. The text, which dates from the early 15th century, was widely disseminated and known and was the subject of study by Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1834. His findings have made it possible to speculate on the origins of this panel, as he noted that the dialect in which the text is written corresponds to an area of the Middle Rhine. According to Lübbeke this should be considered the place of origin of the panel, which he dated to around 1420, both due to the characteristics of the poem and the style of the painting, which corresponds to the International Gothic. In addition, Lübbeke compared the present Descent from the Cross with a Crucifixion also attributed to an anonymous master active in the Middle Rhine area, now in the Städelsche Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt. He detected certain parallels between that panel and the present one, such as the treatment of the hands and the chromatic range with its emphasis on shades of bright colours such as green and red.