Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art

Italian (Florentine)
Painted Crucifix, ca. 1325-35
Tempera on panel
94 x 69 1/4 x 3 1/8 in. (238.8 x 176.5 x 7.5 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund, 1942
AMAM 1942.129

An example of an important late medieval religious type, this painted crucifix represents Giottesque innovations in Florentine painting of the early fourteenth century. The Oberlin crucifix still eloquently communicates its messages of compassion, piety, and devotion.

The painted crucifix, a wooden panel shaped in the form of a cross and bearing a painted image of the crucified Christ accompanied by saints, first appeared in Italy during the eleventh century and gradually became a standard religious type in the repertoire of Italian workshops. During the Trecento, when the Oberlin example was painted, the painted crucifix reached the height of its popularity. 1

Because of its dramatic visual appeal and its significance as a pictorial symbol of the liturgical rituals performed during the mass, the painted crucifix was extremely important for religious institutions. The emaciated Christ bears dramatic signs of his torture and execution. The nearly skeletal body, ashen face, and sunken cheeks are expressive of Christ's condition, and are underscored by the blood spilling from the wounds on his hands, feet, and side. The fictive sign directly above Christ's head proclaims HIC EST IHS NAZAREN, REX IUDEREN (Here is Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). Depicted on the left and right terminals of the cross are the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, shown mourning Christ's death. On the top terminal is painted a mother pelican, fluttering in a nest with her young and altruistically piercing her side in order to feed them, a clear and traditional reference to Christ's sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. 2

Offner included the Oberlin painting in a group of similar images, all based on the revolutionary Sta. Maria Novella Crucifix, painted by either Giotto or a close follower between 1312 and 1315. 3 Offner attributed the Oberlin crucifix to a follower of the otherwise unidentified Master of the Corsi Crucifix. 4 He also noted similarities between the Oberlin panel and the so-called da Filicaia Crucifix, executed for the Florentine church of S. Pier Maggiore around 1330, and now at Santa Croce. 5 Cole has since published a similar crucifix in S. Pietro in Monticelli, 6 but the closest parallel to the Oberlin crucifix appears to be a crucifix in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, also attributed to the Corsi Master workshop by Peter Beye. 7 He notes such similarities as the inclusion of the symbolic pelican, the posture of the figure of Christ, the arrangement and draping of the loincloth, and the overall modeling and decorative detailing, and dates both the Stuttgart and the Oberlin works to about 1330-40.

Scholars have yet to reach consensus over the authorship of the Santa Maria Novella crucifix. In the fifteenth century Ghiberti attributed it to Giotto, while Vasari, in the next century, assigned it to Puccio Capanna, a Giotto follower. Specialists have been divided ever since. Recently, Giorgio Bonsanti, director of the Accademia Museum in Florence, completed an extensive restoration and examination of the crucifix and concluded that it was painted by the hand of Giotto. For a review of the literature surrounding this work, see Francesca Flores D'Arcais, Giotto, trans. R. Rosenthal (New York, 1995), pp. 90-105.

Painted crucifixes as large as the Oberlin work were almost always created for ecclesiastical institutions and would have been placed in one of three places: above the high altar, where it marked the area of greatest importance to supplicants and could be seen immediately upon entering the church; upon a rood screen, where it faced the laity; or at the back of a consecrated altar either in the church choir or in a private burial chapel. An example of a crucifix hanging above a high altar can be seen today in the church of Santa Croce. The latter two placements, however, can only be deduced from depictions of crucifixes in two frescoes in the Upper Basilica of S. Francesco at Assisi (painted ca. 1300). The first fresco includes a fictive rood screen, in front of which are depicted three panel paintings, including a crucifix similar to that at Oberlin. 8 The second depicts a Saint Francis kneeling before a painted crucifix that has been attached to the back of an altar. 9

The damage to the foot of the Oberlin Crucifix (see Technical Data) may have occurred when the picture was detached from its support. After comparing the borders on the crucifixes in the two Assisi frescoes, one might posit that the Oberlin painting was originally attached to the back of an altar, rather than atop an elevated stand on a rood screen, as has been formerly thought. 10 In the first fresco, which depicts the rood screen, the painted border runs unimpeded around the entire crucifix. In the second fresco, and in the Oberlin panel, the border is cut off.

G. R. Bent III


Graf Wilczek, Castle Kreuzenstein near Vienna

With E. A. Silberman Galleries in New York (1936), from whom purchased in 1942

Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, 1936. Texas Centennial Exposition. Cat. no. 19.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1937. Exhibited in the Gallery of Medieval Art. Cat. no. 117.

Rochester, N.Y., Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1939. Six Centuries of Italian Painting. No cat.

Offner, Richard. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Sect. III, vol. 6. New York, 1956, p. 26 and pls. VI, VIa.

Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 23; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 189.

Beye, Peter. "Ein unbekanntes Florentiner Kruzifix aus der Zeit um 1330/1340." Pantheon 25, no. 1 (January/February 1967), pp. 5-11, figs. 3 and 5.

Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 79, fig. 1.

Cole, Bruce. "A Giottesque Cross in San Pietro in Monticelli." Mittelungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 15, no. 3 (1971), pp. 259-64, fig. 4; reprinted in idem, Studies in the History of Italian Art 1250-1550, London, 1996, pp. 78-82.

Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, p. 219.

Technical Data
The primary support is a wood panel constructed of a central section with vertical grain, joined to arms with horizontal grain. The top of Christ's head and his halo is a separately carved wooden piece attached with large iron nails, glue and canvas strips to the front of the panel. The entire panel is covered with a loosely woven plain-weave canvas, and coated with a single layer of white ground--calcium sulphate (anhydrite)--in an aqueous medium. Outlines of the figures and decorative borders and patterns are incised into the ground. The haloes were incised using a compass, with the mark of the compass point still visible in the head of John the Evangelist. The haloes are also decorated with incised floral motifs (Christ) or letters (Mary and John) and simple punched patterns.

All paint layers are very thin. The flesh tones are painted in the traditional manner, with green applied first for the shadows then semitransparent layers of white and pink on top. More green was used for the flesh of the dead Christ to contrast with the pink tones of Mary and John. Glazes were used sparingly, e.g., in the modeling of the drapery. Gold floral designs on top of the paint are in mordant gilding. Background gilding is burnished water gilding.

The support has severe woodworm, splits, warping, and losses along edges. Exposed ground along the edges is saturated with wax resin from the wood consolidation and toned with paint. Some regilding is visible. There are old losses in the ground and crackling and blistering in the gilded ground. The paint surface, though stable, has some cracks, blistering, buckling, many old losses, abrasion, and discolorations. There are many small areas of restoration throughout; many losses are thinly toned with paint without filling. A large knothole on the face of Christ has caused a round crackle pattern and a noticeable area of cupping. Paint and ground are lost completely along the lower edge, perhaps due to water damage. The panel has a narrow carved and gilt wood frame.

1. See Evelyn Sandberg-Vavalà, La Croce dipinta italiana e l'iconografia della passione (Verona, 1929; reprint, Rome, 1985), p. 79. b

2. This symbolism derives from Aristotle's Physiologus; see Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, trans. Janet Seligman, vol. 1 (London, 1971), pp. 136-37.

3. The Sta. Maria Novella crucifix was extremely influential for early Trecento painters. The naturalistic depiction of Christ's body and the highly emotive responses of John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary appear to have been popular with contemporary audiences, who were encouraged by mendicant preachers to think of Christ in human terms. The number of naturalistically rendered crucifixes produced in Florence during the second quarter of the fourteenth century suggests that this image was popular both with painters and with patrons.

4. On the Oberlin painting, see Richard Offner, A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, sect. III, vol. 6 (New York, 1956), p. 26 and pls. VI, VIa, XIII. The comparative Master of the Corsi crucifix is 152 x 128 cm, Florence, Corsi Collection; Offner, op. cit., sect. III, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1931), p. 60 and pl. XV. Another example attributed by Offner to the Corsi master is 308 x 229 cm, Florence, Accademia delle Belle Arti, inv. 436; Offner, loc. cit., p. 62, pl. XVI; this example includes the symbolic pelican at the top.

5. 428 x 313 cm, Florence, Santa Croce, Museo dell'Opere, inv. 15; Richard Offner, A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, sect. III, vol. 6 (New York, 1956), pp. 52-54, pl. XIII.

6. See Bruce Cole, "A Giottesque Cross in San Pietro in Monticelli," Mittelungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 15, no. 3 (1971), pp. 259-64; reprinted in idem, Studies in the History of Italian Art 1250-1550 (London, 1996), pp. 78-82.

7. Peter Beye, "Ein unbekanntes Florentiner Kruzifix aus der Zeit um 1330/1340," Pantheon 25, no. 1 (January/February 1967), pp. 5-11.

8. Girolamo Examining the Stigmata, fresco, Assisi, Basilica of S. Francesco. Here the rood screen supports three pictures, illusionistically painted as if mounted on small stands. The crucifix leans away from the wall, fictively attached at the top by a painted chain.

9. St. Francis at San Damiano, fresco, Assisi, Basilica of S. Francesco. Here the crucifix appears to have been bolted directly to the back of the altar table, without the benefit of a supportive base.

10. The Oberlin Crucifix has long been considered to have been installed on the top of a rood screen. See Wolfgang Stechow, European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (Oberlin, 1967), p. 79. See also Marcia Hall, "The Ponte in S. Maria Novella: The Problem of the Rood Screen in Italy," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 37 (1974), pp. 157-73.