The city-state of Siena, a large Italian hill town some 70km south of Florence, had its golden age in the early trecentro under the artistic genius of Duccio (c.1260–1319) and Simone Martini (c.1285–1344). They developed a rich courtly style dependent on a dancing line rather than the naturalistic concerns of Florentine painters such as Giotto. Giovanni di Paolo’s Crucifixion pays homage to this legacy, to which he was bound by a continuous workshop tradition. The stylised scalloping of the figures’ cascading drapery is a hallmark of this regional inheritance. The artist seems to have been enormously popular in his own lifetime and over two hundred generally-accepted autograph works survive.
The painting shows the Virgin Mary, Mary Madgalen, a donor and St John the Evangelist below the crucified Christ. Tempera and gold leaf have been applied to a ground of white gesso, onto a support of three poplar planks. Suspended from the cross, Christ’s limp, ashen-coloured body is uncompromising against the gilded background. Giovanni di Paolo has contrasted the silent dignity of the dead Saviour with the intense grief of the terrestrial mourners. The exquisitely painted, almost transparent veil of Christ’s loin-cloth is a dramatic counterpoint to the heavy drapery of the figures below, while His wax-like flesh accentuates the pinks and reds of the other faces. Key witnesses to the Crucifixion, the Virgin Mary and St John are conventionally colour-coded in blue and red respectively, although the blue of Mary’s robe now appears green. The Magdalen is shown with blond hair flowing over her scarlet garment, hands crossed and clutching the cross. Her fingers are shown clutching the edge of the suppedaneum (the block to which Christ’s feet are nailed), while his blood is shown streaming down the cross.
The function of the painting is given in its Latin inscription ‘hic iacobvs pictor bartolomei iacet’which translates as ‘Here lies the painter Jacopo di Bartolomeo’. Very little is known of Jacopo – here seen kneeling with his red hat cast over one shoulder – except that he was an artisan-painter and stonemason. His name is first mentioned in 1403, and the final reference to him is dated 1444, but no works can be attributed to him with certainty. From the form of the inscription, as Pope-Hennessy points out, it can be inferred that the purpose of the painting was commemorative and that it surmounted a grave or a sepulchral slab. His hands folded in prayer, Jacopo di Bartolomeo looks up, meditating on the Crucifixion. However the artist, unlike the other figures, is not shown as a participant in the scene; his individualised features bear no trace of emotion, while his fifteenth-century dress sets him apart from the Marys’ and St John’s biblical robes. Above the Virgin and St John, and on either side of Christ, two flying angels are incised. As Grishin reminds us, by the use of the outline only, Giovanni di Paolo suggests ‘… the invisible, metaphysical nature of the angelic beings and compositionally retains a carefully balanced triangular structure.’1
Giovanni di Paolo used the same cartoon – or variants – at a number of different points in his career and, apart from the portrait of the donor, all the figures have their close resemblances elsewhere.2 The closest parallel for the figure of the dead Christ is found on a smaller scale within the central panel of a predella, The Crucifixion with Sts Jerome and Bernardino 1450–55, added to Andrea Vanni’s polyptych for the church of Santo Stefano alla Lizza in Siena. The distraught Virgin is also based on a cartoon that the painter used on two other occasions in a reduced form: she appears in the Santo Stefano predella, and again, with head upturned and veil thrust back, in The Crucifixion c.1465 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). St John the Evangelist recalls similar figures in a predella panel of the Fondi Altarpiece c.1436 and in the Crucifixion1440 painted for the Franciscan convent of the Osservanza outside Siena(both Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena). The kneeling Magdalen recurs, almost on the same scale, inThe Crucifixion1430s (Staatliches Lindenau-Museum, Altenburg) and in the Osservanza Crucifixion,as do the heavy wedges with which the cross is fixed into the ground.
Lucina Ward, and drawing on J. Pope-Hennessy, ‘A Crucifixion by Giovanni di Paolo’ in Art and Australia, vol.16, 1978, pp.66–67.