GIOVANNI Paolo | Crucifixion with donor Jacopo di Bartolomeo [Crocifisso con il donato Jacopo di Bartolomeo]

Italy (Siena) 1399 /1403 – 1482

Crucifixion with donor Jacopo di Bartolomeo [Crocifisso con il donato Jacopo di Bartolomeo] c.1455
tempera and gold on panel
inscribed l.l. to l.r., tempera, "HIC.IACOBVS.PICTOR.BARTOLOMEI.IACET"
panel 114.5 (h) x 88.5 (w) cm Purchased 1977
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1977.103

Giovanni di Paolo stages for us the greatest Christian drama. The body of the crucified Christ is stretched out on a gold ground. Below, reacting to his suffering, four people are placed on a grey-green earth. His mother Mary turns away a little, as though she cannot bear to see her Son in agony—her painted blue robe has turned greenish-black over the centuries. Mary Magdalene in red, golden hair rippling down her back, hugs the Cross to connect with the suffering Jesus, as though asking to share his fate. A wide-eyed donor kneels in prayer, staring in wonderment at the sight. Saint John, ‘the beloved disciple’,[1] echoes Mary’s grief-stricken stance, but looks towards Christ rather than turning away.

The Latin words inscribed at the bottom of the painting, ‘HIC.IACOBVS.PICTOR.BARTOLOMEI.IACET’, meaning ‘Here lies the painter Jacopo di Bartolomeo [son of Bartholomew]’, show the reason for the creation of the panel: it is a memorial for the tomb or chapel where Jacopo is interred. Little is known of the donor apart from the self-declared fact of his occupation and this commemoration of his death, probably in Siena in the mid 1450s.[2] It is extremely unusual for a Renaissance altarpiece to be commissioned by, or for, an artist.[3] Most donors were from noble or rich families, public figures or members of the Church. They were usually depicted as smaller than the sacred protagonists, unlike Jacopo’s life-size figure.

Jacopo is dressed like a physician in a black cape with red tunic, stockings and shoes, his broad red hat over his shoulder doffed for the occasion. In Florence the guild system of craft training and practice included artists in the Arte dei Medici e Speziali [Guild of Physicians and Pharmacists], although in Siena they belonged to the Arte dei Pittori [Painters’ Guild]. Another hint of the donor’s identity lies in the two shields bearing a coat of arms, seen in full at left, but cut off at right when the panel was removed from its original setting. The kite shield on the left, shaped like an inverted teardrop, bears two gold stars above a red crescent moon. In 2006 infra-red reflectography revealed hills at the bottom: Jaynie Anderson argues this might imply the Latin motto per aspera ad astra [through adversity to the stars]. No such family coat of arms has been identified yet.[4]

Giovanni di Paolo made the gold surface by spreading white gesso (gypsum and glue) over the face of three joined poplar planks, and covering the areas to be gilded with bole, a kind of clay. He then applied squares of gold leaf.[5] Angels are incised into the gilding, flanking Christ—heavenly witnesses to the Crucifixion. The angel on the left is obscured by some retouching of the gilding, part of a large repair to the cracked wooden panel. On the right an angel is indicated by lines in the gold sky. The artist’s emotional rendering of facial expressions and bodily reactions combines Gothic distortion with a Renaissance emphasis on humans and their earthly lives.

Christine Dixon

[1]Gospel of Saint John, 19:25–26.

[2]John Pope-Hennesy, Report for acquisition, NGA file 75/1287 ff. 130–32.

[3]Jaynie Anderson, ‘ “Through adversity to renown”: Giovanni di Paolo’s painting of a Crucifixion in Canberra’, artibus et historiae,no. 56, 2007, pp. 197–205, (pp. 202–03).

[4]Anderson, p. 200.

[5]Author’s discussion with David Wise, Senior Paintings Conservator, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, August 2010.