The Crucifixion1509 - 1519. Oil on panel, 123 x 169 cm.
Documents at Palencia Cathedral cast light on this Crucifixion’s original location -the central row of the main altarpiece at that cathedral- and its author: Juan de Flandes (doc. 1496-1519). They also offer information about this panel between 1509, when that Flemish painter was commissioned to paint it, and 1944, when the Cathedral management sold it. Those same documents indicate that Palencia Cathedral’s current main altarpiece, which bears carvings and paintings, was commissioned by Bishop Diego de Deza (1443-1524) for what was then the main chapel and is now the Tabernacle chapel. At that time, it was not supposed to have any paintings, but instead, carvings by sculptor Felipe Bigarny (doc. 1498-1524) and architectural elements by Pedro de Guadalupe. That altarpiece had not yet been completed when the new Bishop of Palencia, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca (1451-1524) decided to move the cathedral’s main chapel to its present location in what had previously been the retrochoir. This new space reached all the way up to the vaults of the central nave, and that increased height required a change in the dimensions of the new altarpiece. The decision to expand it was accompanied by the idea of combining sculpture and painting and, as the prelate had a taste for Flemish painting -he had been to the Netherlands on diplomatic missions for the crown- he decided to contract Juan de Flandes, who had formerly been Isabella the Catholic’s court painter. This artist had moved from Salamanca to Palencia, installing his studio there after the queen’s death on November 26, 1504, and it is even possible that he did so at the Bishop’s behest. On December 19, 1509, Bishop Fonseca signed a contract with Juan de Flandes to make eleven paintings. That contract stipulates the dimensions and subject matter of the eleven panels in the following order: Crucifixion, The Road to Calvary, The Burial of Christ, The Resurrection, Noli me tangere, Agony in the Garden, Christ before Pilate, Ecce Homo, The Road to Emmaus, The Birth of Christ and The Annunciation, which clearly indicates the importance that Fonseca assigned to the Crucifixion and to the other two panels intended to flank it: the Burial and The Road to Calvary.
In his depiction of the historic image of the Crucifixion on the central panel of Palencia Cathedral’s main altarpiece, Juan de Flandes chose the iconographic type that Réau calls de grand spectacle, which was appropriate for the panel’s large dimensions and horizontal format, and undoubtedly the one preferred by the painter’s client. Here, he reduced that type to its essential elements, a customary approach for this Flemish painter, and one that is even more accentuated in this work from late in his career, where the large size of the figures requires including less of them in the composition. At the center, on a plane parallel to that of the painting’s surface, Juan de Flandes situates the protagonist, crucified with three nails in keeping with the iconography that had predominated since the 13th century. Christ appears lifeless, with a crown of thorns and with blood flowing from his wounds. The artist’s insistence on the emotional aspects reflects his effort to make the image as moving as possible. Still, as was quite common among early Flemish painters, at least from the tradition that Juan de Flandes had learned -Memling, the legacy of Van de Weyden and the Van Eycks, and even Van der Goes- he did not go as far as other painters, who actually depicted the bloody marks on Christ’s body where his clothing had been torn away.
The dark cloud that covers the top of the panel, above the sky -here it partially hides the sun at the left and the moon at the right- evokes the darkness described in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33 and Luke 23:44), where it is said to have covered the Earth between the sixth and ninth hours when Christ died , that is, between noon and three in the afternoon. The presence of a dark cloud that hid the sun over Calvary, and its important role in this composition -it completely occupies a wide zone at the top of the panel, just as it did in Memling’s Greverade Triptych in Lubeck- leaves no doubt about the moment that Juan de Flandes chose to depict in this Crucifixion from the Museo del Prado. Christ is dead on the cross, having already consummated humankind’s redemption. Memling and other artists had made the same choice in their works, but here, the action takes place later, when the procession has already left Golgotha on the way to Jerusalem and the only people left around the cross are Christ’s anguished relatives and disciples. On his right: the Virgin, Saint John, Mary Magdalene and the two Marys; and on his left, those who have converted to Christianity and turn their faces and gazes toward their Savior with a mixture of astonishment and devotion: the soldier bearing a lance and facing away from the viewer, the centurion on horseback and the rider who accompanies him.
The Virgin stands out among the group to Jesus’ right. Sitting on a stone with her face covered in tears, she is close to fainting. Juan de Flandes’s depiction of Mary here differs from that of other Flemish artists with whom he had contact, or who influenced him in some way. Rather than presenting her as swooning in the arms of the two Mary’s, or of Saint John, when she sees her lifeless Son stabbed in the side -as narrated in the Pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditationes Vitae Christi (chapt. LXXX)- Juan de Flandes depicts her in the present work in the foreground, sitting on a stone on a stone terrace that is higher than the middle ground, isolated in her personal anguish.
To the right of the Virgin, with their backs to Jesus, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome appear with their faces covered in tears. One stands alongside the Virgin, although on a lower level, and joins her hands in prayer. Behind her, the other stands on the stone terrace with her hands spread, though not as widely as those of Mary Magdalene. At the left edge of the panel, Juan de Flandes depicts Christ’s beloved disciple, John, standing on the terrace. Like the Virgin, he is alone in his anguish, at a distance from Christ and with tears on his face.
A skull and femur occupy the central foreground, and their presence is further emphasized by their placement on a boulder that is higher than the stone terrace, effectively separating them from two other skulls and other bones partially hidden behind them. The foremost skull is undoubtedly the one identified as Adam’s by a legend that says he was buried where Christ’s cross would later stand on Golgotha.
As with other works he made at the end of his career, in this Crucifixion, Juan de Flandes presents a limited number of figures. Their scale has been increased but they are immobile, as if all action had been suspended, and they do not seem to interact at all. In other depictions of Christ’s Passion for the Palencia Cathedral altarpiece, certain figures of henchmen and soldiers convey their sentiments with greater intensity, even grimacing, but that is not the case in this Crucifixion, as all of the figures remaining with Christ here recognize his divinity. This does not mean, however, that they lack emotions, but rather that they are contained, transmitted only by their facial expressions -the Virgin, Saint John and the two Marys are all in tears- or a great variety of gestures. The artist’s emphasis and attention to the figures’ hands is revealed by infrared and x-ray images of this work, which show how he rectified and even shifted them before definitively determining their shapes and positions.
In proportion to the overall painting, the figures are larger in all of the works that Juan de Flandes made in Palencia. This also leads to an increase in volume, due in large part to their clothing, which sometimes has wide folds, as can be seen on the Virgin’s robes in the present work. The present panel also shows how the artist responded to the presence of Bigarny’s sculpture. In order to compete with the latter, he reinforces certain contours on the basis of the overall chiaroscuro and intensifies the contrasts in their modeling. The palette is expanded to include a darker range of colors, although there is no loss of brilliance, nor any reduction in the artist’s interest in faithfully capturing the qualities of the objects he depicts, including their different material makeup (Text drawn from Silva, P.: La Crucifixión de Juan de Flandes, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2006, pp. 5-7; 27-35).