The Crucified Christ with a Donor1640. Oil on canvas, 244 x 167.5 cm.
Francisco de Zurbarán cultivated a variety of genres over the course of his career, including still life, portraiture and history painting, but the majority of his works were religious. Many of the latter belonged to series employed in the decoration of monasteries, while others were single images for religious settings, including those he painted for private use. One of his religious subjects was Christ on the cross, which he depicted at least a dozen times with numerous variants between 1627, when he crafted Christ Crucified -his masterpiece at the Art institute of Chicago- and 1655, when he painted Christ Crucified with Saint John, Mary Magdalene and the Virgin (London, private collection).
In all of these works, Christ is crucified with four nails rather than the customary three. And while that may seem unimportant, it provoked erudite arguments in its day, especially in the intellectual circles of Seville to which both Zurbarán and his clients were especially receptive. The subject of Christ on the cross was important to Spanish painters for two reasons. First, because it is one of the most significant in Catholic imagery, and second, because it allowed painters to depict male nudity, and thus, to demonstrate their mastery of anatomy and proportions. Here, Zurbarán employs a highly tenebrist technique to model a forceful body whose powerful presence is imposing to the viewer. The anatomical canon is heavier than in other similar works by this artist, perhaps because, here, the Savior’s body is lifeless, rather than dying, as on other occasions.
Nailed to a smooth cross, Christ’s body stands out against a dark background that is further darkened by his shadow, suggesting a sculptural approach also visible in other painters from Seville at that time, including Diego Velázquez. A gentleman dressed in period clothing with hands joined in a devout manner appears at the left edge of the composition. This is the donor, the person who commissioned the work, probably for a place of worship. His inclusion is very interesting as Zurbarán painted very few portraits.
In the lower part of the composition, the donor’s face, his carefully joined hands and Christ’s powerful, nail-pierced feet constitute a very meticulously executed area, a brilliant depiction that contrasts with the rest of the canvas, which is more summary or abstract (Text drawn from J.: El Prado en el Ermitage, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2011, pp. 132-133).