A range of emotions prevails in this poignant representation of the Crucifixion, set against a plunging northern landscape. In keeping with the Gospel’s account, the sky has darkened in anticipation of Christ’s death. A bevy of angels portrayed in a variety of attitudes, from silent contemplation to anguished weeping, hovers near the cross, their draperies forming intricate folds that appear almost petal-like in their delicacy. Some, too pained by the scene before them, have no choice but to turn away or bury their faces in their voluminous sleeves.
Below, on Mount Golgotha marked by a strewn skull, Mary leans into Saint John, her tear-stained face and downcast eyes betraying the depth of her sorrow at the loss of her son. John gestures toward her to draw attention to her profoundly empathetic reaction, thereby encouraging the viewer to recognize her as a model of devotion to be emulated. The principles of compassio and co-redemptio are also brought to life in the elegantly-attired Mary Magdalene, shown in a humble, crouched stance with fingers laced in prayer and grief. Like John, she engages the viewer through her sad gaze, and so provides him or her with a point of entry into the picture. Slightly beyond the mound representing Golgotha, the two Marys stand huddled together in mourning, serving the same purpose of enhancing the spectator’s mystical connection to Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive roles. To the right of the cross, a pair of figures acts as their spiritual foil: two soldiers, one of whom carries the Eyckian motif of a small, circular shield, turn their backs to the holy event as they venture toward the town below.
The composition of this highly-refined painting is closely related to Gerard David’s Crucifixion probably begun after 1502 (fig. 1; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The two panels share much in common in terms of their arrangement, with the outline of the hilly landscape marking a clear separation between the earthly realm and the heavenly sky occupied by Christ and the angels (shown flying toward the scene in the Berlin painting). Moreover, in each case the holy mourners are concentrated to Christ’s right, while soldiers and mercenary figures appear to his left. The crosses in both images are virtually identical in terms of their oblique placement as well as their appearance, down to their knots and exposed bark —a reference to the Tree of Jesse. These latter two features are unusual in Netherlandish art, where typically the Virgin and Saint John stand on opposite sides of the cross, which is perpendicular to the picture plane.
Several other details link the paintings, including the presence in each of a figure in a reddish cloak on a white horse to the right of the cross, and of another individual with a raised arm riding a rearing brown steed. Two diminutive female witnesses in white headdresses also appear in both paintings—between Mary Magdalene and Saint John in David’s composition, and between these saints and the cross in the presenting painting. These motifs are treated similarly but not identically in the two compositions; the small female onlookers in white, for example, are inverted in each case. As for the rider with a raised arm, in our panel he virtually buttresses the base of the cross while in David’s work he appears before a crenellated wall deeper in the landscape. Such discrepancies speak of a hand comfortable with adaptation, a fact confirmed by the present painting’s magnificent under-drawing (fig. 2). Devoid of any trace of pouncing, which would suggest the use of a cartoon, the under-drawing is remarkable for the level of detail lavished upon all parts of its composition. Especially noteworthy is the freely-drawn yet highly controlled hatching and shading that breathe life into the principle figures and their garments.
In his catalogue, Lorne Campbell argues that the Berlin Crucifixion, together with the panel of Canon Bernardijn Salviati with Saints Bernardino, Martin and Donation now in the National Gallery, London, originally formed a diptych (L. Campbell, National Gallery Catalogues: The Fifteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, London, 1998, pp. 130-32). The altarpiece in question would have been commissioned in 1501 for the altar of Saints John and Mary Magdalene that Salviati endowed in that year in the Collegiate Church of St. Donatian, Bruges. It is possible that the author of the present painting had occasion to see David’s Crucifixion there, although it is just as plausible that both panels draw from a common source that has yet to be identified. The high quality of the present painting, with its serene palette and myriad expressive touches, lends itself well to the latter hypothesis.