This is a fine and characteristic example of the work of Jean Bourdichon, the most celebrated illuminator at the French court in Tours at the end of the 15th century. Bourdichon succeeded Jean Fouquet as painter to Louis XI in 1481 and went on to serve Charles VIII, Louis XII and Francis I. He was active as painter and illuminator, although only one panel painting by him is known to survive, and he is now best known through his manuscript illumination. His acknowledged masterpiece, the Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany, Queen of Charles VIII and Louis XII, for which he was paid in 1508, is particularly close in style to this illumination (Paris, BnF, ms lat. 9474). Both show slightly elongated figures within a comparatively narrow picture area, the same facial types, intense expressions, evocative landscapes and a meticulous technique with subtle tonal transitions. Similar qualities appear in Bourdichon's dismembered Hours of Louis XII of c.1500, from which leaves were recently acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (for Bourdichon, see F. Avril and N. Reynaud, Les manuscrits à peintures en France 1440-1520, exhib. cat., Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, 1993-1994, pp. 293-305). The whole page of even the Grandes Heures, however, measures 300 x 195 mm so that its miniatures are considerably smaller than the Christ on the Cross, which was clearly intended as an independant painting and not an illustration in a book.
This is evident not only from its size but from its subject matter; it shows neither a straightforward narrative scene nor the iconic crucified Christ flanked by the Virgin and St John that were conventional in liturgical manuscripts. This is an image for personal devotion, combining the narrative - the starry evening sky where the Magdalen laments as she waits with ointment pot and prayer shawl for the body of Christ to be lowered for burial - and the meditative image removed from time. Since the kneeling saints are separated from Christ by being literally contained within the earthly landscape, they appear reassuringly earthbound, approachable intermediaries between God and man, inviting the viewer to imitate their devotions and to empathise with their participation in the sufferings of Christ
Illuminated sheets intended for independent display are now extremely rare, although a group does survive associated with Bourdichon's younger Flemish contemporary, Simon Bening. Many earlier examples incorporated text but purely pictorial independent illuminations also existed. By 1380, Charles V of France owned what was probably an illuminated triptych of the Crucifixion with saints, presumably also an aid to devotion. Illuminated sheets pasted or nailed to panels could fulfil many of the functions of panel paintings, so that during the 15th century painters became increasingly worried by the competition. In 1510 the illuminators of Lille were castigated for sending illuminations pasted on panel by the basket-load to Paris (for independent illuminations, see C. Reynolds, 'Illuminators and the Painters' Guilds' in T. Kren and S. McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance, Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum and London, Royal Academy of Arts, 2003-2004, pp.15-33).
Within France, painter-illuminators like Bourdichon were well placed to supply this market. Bourdichon is known to have produced illuminations outside books, creating on parchment designs for many art forms as well as works complete in themselves, like the view or map of Caudebec, painted on five skins of parchment glued together, and the 24 paintings, each on a half skin and each showing a boat with sailors and young ladies. For each of these commissions from Louis XI in 1480, he received 8 livres tournois; Charles of Angoulême, father of the future Francis I, paid him 10 livres tournois for just one illumination, suggesting that this too may have been a large and carefully finished independent piece comparable to the present work (D. MacGibbon, Jean Bourdichon, Glasgow, 1933, p.137).
This impressive Christ on the Cross is a highly significant and beautiful addition to Bourdichon's oeuvre as an illuminator while, as an independent work, it offers new insights into his work as a painter.