This exquisite, early woodcut was probably made in Strasbourg during Dürer's brief sojourn as a journeyman in the city in 1493, shortly before he returned to his native Nuremberg. Published in the Opus Speciale Missarum by the Strasbourg printer Johannes Grüninger (1455–1533), it is one of the earliest full-page prints by the artist, who until then had mainly produced narrative book illustrations. The woodcut does not yet bear the artist’s monogram – the famous letter AD first appear in print around 1495 in the Holy Family with the Butterfly. It was only in 1906 that the Dürer scholar Montagu Peartree firmly attributed the Strasbourg woodcut to the artist's hand, a view corroborated by later scholars. While the balanced composition, stylised drapery and the slender body of Christ reflect Dürer’s late Gothic precedents, in particular Schongauer, Peartree noted that 'the design betrays, especially in the figure of Saint John, not only artistic skill, but mental force of no uncommon order. In seriousness and dignity it far transcends the traditional Crucifixion groups of 15th century missals. If the average quality of such productions is borne in mind, the appearance of such a woodcut in 1493 marks an innovation nothing short of revolutionary' (quoted in: W. L. Strauss, Albrecht Dürer, Woodcut and Woodblocks, Abaris Books, New York, 1980, p. 98). Dürer's subtle innovation of the figure of Saint John, who is depicted in three-quarter view from behind, his hand's raised in prayer and his head raised, gazing at the dying Christ, reflects the viewer’s position towards the scene and introduces a new emotional gravity to the image. The background depicts a very typical Northern European landscape, which links Christ's Passion to the everyday experience of its intended audience. The elements of this landscape with its hills, the distant castle and the ‘string-like’ rows of trees can still be found in many of his later woodcuts.
The undoubtedly contemporary hand-colouring applied to this impression would have been the work of a Briefmaler, literally 'letter painter', a profession tasked with the colouring of popular woodcuts, broadsheets, playing cards, and other objects of everyday use, as opposed to the separate class of painters known as Illuministen, who created miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.
Impressions of this woodcut are very rare. Only a few complete examples of the Opus Speciale Missarum are known, including a few on vellum, and Schoch, Mende & Scherbaum record four loose examples in public collections. Another hand-coloured example is at the National Gallery of Washington, D.C. (from the collection of Lessing Rosenwald). To our knowledge no other example has appeared on the market in the last thirty years.