Francisco de Zurbarán's Christ on the Cross

The Illuminated Christ

Zurbarán's iconic depictions of Christ on the Cross are amongst the most striking and profoundly moving images to be found in Spanish Baroque art. The power of this remarkable painting comes from its sheer simplicity. Nailed to a rough-hewn cross, Christ’s body emerges from the impenetrable darkness, illuminated only by a bright light from above and to the left. The scene is devoid of all narrative details – the figures of His mother and mourners are absent and only the barest hints of a distant landscape serve as a setting – thus forcing the viewer to focus upon Christ’s sacrifice.

This dramatic tenebrism is reinforced by the life-size scale of the crucified Christ, and in the luminous flesh and the cleanly modelled folds of His loincloth the illusion of reality is taken to an unprecedented level. It is as though we are present at the very moment of His final breaths, as He cries out to His Father. This devotional ‘reality’ was deliberately austere and emotionally powerful and was intended to shock the senses and stir the soul of the faithful. Painted around 1635, the solemn, religious intensity of Zurbarán’s works such as this accorded perfectly with the needs of the Counter-Reformation in seventeenth century Seville, and to this day he remains unsurpassed as a painter of the revived Catholic spirituality of his time.

Zurbarán’s Iconography

The theme of the Crucified Christ was of central importance in Zurbarán’s oeuvre. His earliest treatment of the subject was painted for the Sevillian monastery of San Pablo el Real in 1627 and is today in the Art Institute of Chicago. Thereafter he executed some thirty works on this subject, with later examples dating from the 1650s. These can be divided into two groups: those depicting Christ while still alive on the cross, such as in the present canvas, and those showing Him after his death.

Francisco De Zurbarán, The Crucifixion Mutriku.jpg
Francisco De Zurbarán, The Crucifixion, 1635-40. Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, Mutriku, Spain.

Undoubtedly the most powerful of these are those painted like the present canvas in the 1630s. The present work is generally dated by scholars to between 1635–40, roughly a decade after the San Pablo altarpiece. It is one of only three autograph versions of this specific iconographic type and is furthermore the only one to be signed, which indicates that it can probably be considered as the prime original. The two other autograph paintings are in the parish church of the port of Mutriku (in the province of Gipuzkoa in the autonomous Basque region of northern Spain) and in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville.

Zurbarán’s Christ is presented frontally and upright, not hanging on the cross after death but standing upright with His feet resting on the supedaneum, supporting the weight of His body. Unusually, Zurbarán has positioned Christ’s feet parallel to each other, with a nail driven through each, not crossed over each other and pierced with a single nail, as was usual at this time.

The iconography follows the instruction of Francisco Pacheco (1564–1644), whose Christ on the Cross (private collection, Madrid) of 1615 shows Christ standing with four (rather than the usual three) nails fixing him to the cross against a similarly blank foreground. Although an artist of limited ability, Pacheco was the leading teacher and theorist in Seville in the first decades of the seventeenth century, and in his capacity as Supervisor of Sacred Images to the Inquisition after 1618 he emphasised that in the imitation of nature art should have a spiritual purpose in the service of religion. In his El Arte de la Pintura of 1649, for example, Pacheco wrote that this departure from tradition regarding the depiction of the Crucifixion adhered to the New Testament accounts more closely, and that the upright stance of Jesus was "without ugly twisting or discomposure, as is suitable to the sovereign greatness of Christ our Lord".

In Detail: Texture and Light

While it is unclear whether Zurbarán saw Pacheco’s painting, his handling of the subject clearly recalls it and the Crucified Christ painted a few years earlier around 1632 by the latter’s pupil and son-in-law Diego Velázquez (1599–1660) for the Encarnación de San Plácido, a convent of Benedictine nuns in Madrid, and today in the Prado. Although we do not know of the original circumstances of the commission for this painting, the large scale of the canvas strongly suggests that it was intended as an altarpiece, the lighting perhaps indicating that this was for a chapel with a light source falling from above and to the left.

While Pacheco’s iconography may have served as a starting point for the young Zurbarán, he brings to his subject a luminosity and a realism that is utterly absent from the older artist’s example. The Christ on the Cross here is a perfect illustration of this astonishingly powerful new and pared back aesthetic approach. The figure of Christ is depicted with a profound understanding of anatomy and with a focus on detail and the texture of different surfaces. Zurbarán has not spared the viewer any details; everything from the callused skin of Christ’s bare feet to the cold iron of the nails, the smooth tension of His skin and the splinters of the roughly sawn wood of the cross is scrupulously depicted.

The drapery fastened around Christ's hips, called the perizonium, or paño de pureza (cloth of purity), is depicted in full volume and appears bright white in the stream of light that falls on the lone figure. The strikingly three-dimensional, sculptural quality of this linen suggests the artist was working from a model, prepared perhaps with starched cloth or fabric dipped in plaster. This very probably reflects Zurbarán’s early training as a polychromer of sculpture, and indeed the hugely important influence of contemporary Spanish sculpture upon his art.

This monumental and moving simplicity, and the startling new visual language in which it was expressed in works such as the Christ on the Cross aroused an immediate reaction among Zurbarán’s contemporaries in Seville and beyond. The joining of realism and mysticism in Zurbarán’s art perfectly answered the contemporary desire of the Catholic Church for art to better reflect the enhanced spirituality demanded by the Counter-Reformation.

The Spanish New World

The unsparing depiction of the figure of Christ in the final moments of His suffering accords closely with the austere devotional imagery prescribed by Pacheco and the Catholic Revival. The significance of the iconography of the crucified Christ in the early decades of the seventeenth century in Spain can hardly be overstated. Prior to the Reformation, images of Christ on the cross were commonplace; they were to be found within churches, sculpted into lifelike figures and carried in procession through the streets in Passion plays and venerated upon the death-bed.

The visibility and ubiquity of the crucified Christ, along with the special demands put upon it by its centrality to Catholic doctrine and devotional practice, ensured that it was thoroughly rejected by Lutherans and Calvinists and made a particular target of iconoclasts. Conversely, it now attained enhanced significance for Roman Catholic iconography, and by Tridentine decree images of the crucified Christ were to be placed on every Catholic altar.

Francisco De Zurbarán, The Crucifixion circa 1635-40 Museo de Bellas Artes Seville
Francisco De Zurbarán, The Crucifixion, circa 1635-40. Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville.

The Counter Reformation, however, required a significant re-imagining of the motif. The panoramic, multi-figure, narrative crucifixion scenes favoured before 1500 were now replaced by images of Christ either alone, or with only one or two other figures such as the two Marys and John the Evangelist, and wide and detailed landscapes replaced by atmospheric darkness. The stark and sober solemnity of this Christ on the cross by Zurbarán perfectly embodies the simplification of this subject matter and conforms to contemporary assertions of apostolic purity and reformatory stripping away of excess. Of particular interest with regard to the present painting are its connections with the Spanish New World.

There are, for example, no less than three copies after this Christ on the Cross recorded in the Peruvian capital, Lima. Taken together with the known history of this picture, the existence of the Lima copies may well attest to its early arrival in the former Spanish colonial capital. It may be that this canvas was commissioned from Zurbarán specifically for the altar of a church or monastic centre there, and if so it would constitute one of the very first of his paintings to be exported to the New World.

Although in Spain itself, Zurbarán’s later years were eclipsed by Murillo’s popular and less ascetic art, he exercised considerable influence on the colonial painters of Spanish America through the many works exported there. The number of versions produced by Zurbarán’s workshop unquestionably attests to the widespread demand for versions of the composition throughout Spain and beyond.

Old Master Paintings

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