Medieval Painting

Types of Painting


Life of Christ – Crucifixion

Crucifixion - Giotto di Bondone

Christ’s crucifixion can be shown on a painted cross - a panel in the shape of the cross or in a panel painting or fresco which shows the crucified Christ and other figures.

Christ  is shown nailed to the cross with either four nails, or three where one nail retains both feet. He can be shown alive, upright and seemingly quite cheerful – indicating that he will triumph over death (by coming back to life) or slumped and dead, reminding the viewer that by his death he has saved mankind. In western European paintings Christ is usually shown alive in paintings made before about 1200 and dead in paintings made thereafter.

Where other figures are shown these invariably include Mary, the mother of Jesus and John the Evangelist. Mary’s postures range from stoically upright to collapsing and being supported by her friends. John the Evangelist is generally painted with delicate features and is shown expressing deep sorrow. Mary and John can be shown alongside each other- the bible tells that Christ while on the cross told Mary to be like a mother to John and told John to be like a son to Mary (John 19,27)  or on opposite sides of the cross. It the case of painted crosses they are often shown as small figures on each side of the cross.

Other figures commonly shown include:

The female friends of Mary, two of these are also called Mary. One is Mary Magdalen (usually dressed in red and with very long hair) and provide a grouping called the Three Maries.  The women are usually shown adjacent to, or supporting, Mary.

Roman Soldiers – who crucified Christ.  The story tells that Christ called out for a drink and that a soldier provided him vinegar on a sponge. This soldier is shown holding a long stick with the sponge fixed to the end. Once Christ was believed to be dead another Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear to test this. The presence of Christ either being speared, or showing the presence of a side wound indicates that he is dead. Soldiers may also be seen at the foot of the cross gambling, usually by throwing dice, for Christ's clothes.

The Thieves – according to the Bible (Luke 23, 29-31) Christ was crucified alongside two thieves. One of these repented of his sins while on the cross the other did not. The thieves are usually shown tied, rather than nailed, to their crosses and in the process of having their legs broken with wooden clubs to ensure their deaths. Their souls may be shown leaving their bodies. The repentant thief’s soul borne aloft by angels, that of the unrepentant is collected by demons and dragged down to hell.

Other Iconography - The cross may be shown mounted in a tiny hill in which is buried a skull. This represents Golgotha (the place of the skull) where the crucifixion is supposed to have taken place.

In the fresco painting above Christ is shown still alive (no side wound) looking down at Mary, who is supported by her friends and John the Evangelist. Mary Magdalen kisses the feet of Christ. To the right Roman soliders argue over Christ's clothes. The lefthand most member of this group is fixing the sponge onto the stick.