Essentiality and suffering: the beauty of Diego Velázquez's Christ on the Cross.

Diego Velázquez's Christ on the Cross is one of the most extraordinary crucifixes in art history: the painter wanted to depict Christ as the most beautiful among men. And, in the twentieth century, Miguel de Unamuno dedicated a poem to the work.

Theessentiality with which the artist succeeded in conveying the solemnity of Christ’s suffering on the cross, without the need to add to the composition additional elements that recall the Passion or elaborate background landscapes: this is what strikes the viewer when confronted with the Crucified Christ by Diego Velázquez (Seville, 1599 - Madrid, 1660). A painting constructed solely with the presence of the main subject, illuminated by an almost lunar light, which creates the effect of a sculpture: indeed, it seems that the body of Christ takes on volume and goes beyond the confines of the canvas.

Monumental in size, the cross touches the frame of the painting, and on it stands the figure of Christ supported by four nails, one on each limb; in the background is not a landscape but a dark green vestment that gives the whole composition extraordinary depth. A scene that is extremely intense but at the same time sobering: the signs of the Passion on the now lifeless body are almost entirely absent. Thin rivulets of blood run down from the wounds in the hands and feet, staining the wood of the cross bright red, at once the guilt of humanity and a saving event for all humanity. Blood also flows down the right side from the wound on the side, and almost imperceptible are the drops from the head, encircled by the crown of thorns. The nude, shining body, covered only by an immaculate cloth knotted at the hips, and well-proportioned in its features, shows only slight signs of sacrifice; the composition is not macabre in its entirety, but the element that stands out is precisely the light emanating from the body, which creates an atmosphere of religious silence and meditation. A warm halo surrounds Jesus’ head reclining forward, and the face appears in shadow, almost completely covered by the brown hair, but the features seem serene and relaxed. Everything is in line with an iconography that, while expressing the tragic nature of the event, does not intend to make it explicit in a dramatic way, but it is a suffering that strikes the innermost part of the observer, probably precisely because of the solemnity and sobriety with which the artist chose to represent the scene.

Diego Velázquez, Cristo Crocifisso (1632 circa; olio su tela, 248 x 169 cm; Madrid, Prado)
Diego Velázquez, Christ Crucified (c. 1632; oil on canvas, 248 x 169 cm; Madrid, Prado)

The work is kept at the Prado Museum, as are most of the artist’s major ones : in fact, almost fifty of the approximately one hundred and twenty paintings attributed to him are housed in the Madrid museum building, and these include the most significant ones, such as Las Meninas. For this reason he can be considered the symbolic painter of the prestigious institution. The painting belongs to Velázquez’s mature years: in fact, it dates from 1631-1632, shortly after his return from Italy and a period when the royal collections began to bear increasingly prolific witness to the splendor and power of the Spanish court. These were the years when the painter, whose career was marked by his long stay at the court, produced many portraits of the royal family and especially of King Philip IV, his brother Ferdinand and little Baltasar Carlos, as well as several portraits of the Count-Duke of Olivares, the one who probably influenced his entry into the court. The Christ Crucified, destined for the Benedictine convent of San Placido in Madrid, was probably commissioned from him by Jerónimo de Villanueva, prothonotary of the Kingdom of Aragon and secretary to the count-duke of Olivares; Villanueva was a prominent figure at court and therefore may have commissioned such an important work from the king’s painter himself. We also know that Villanueva had direct contact with Velázquez, as he was responsible for some payments from the king between 1634 and 1635.

His close association with the court and nobility was perhaps the reason why there are few paintings with religious subjects in his artistic output. Some critics link his sobriety in depicting sacred scenes to his personal detached attitude toward them, since he used to deal with courtly themes; others, however, claim that Velázquez is the Spanish painter who succeeded best in depicting the intensity of religious sentiment, precisely by taking this sobriety into account. However, it is known that he followed the teachings of his master Francisco Pacheco (Sanlúcar de Barrameda, 1564 - Seville, 1644), a painter and treatise artist, who also later became his father-in-law (he in fact married Juana Pacheco), under whom he trained in Seville. In particular he was influenced by the latter in the depiction of Christ as the most beautiful among men, as he is defined in Psalm 44, and in the presence of four nails supporting the body at the cross, instead of three, as many artists depicted (one on both hands and one only for the feet, since the latter were depicted one on top of the other). And on the quantity of nails Pacheco dealt at the end of his 1649 Arte de la Pintura . The three-language inscription on the wood above Christ’s head mirrors the Latin text of St. John’s Gospel “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum,” i.e., the inscription Pontius Pilate had placed on Jesus’ cross to indicate the reason for condemnation.

Miguel de Unamuno (Bilbao, 1864 - Salamanca, 1936), a poet active at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, dedicated a poem to the work of the 17th-century Spanish painter, El Cristo de Velázquez. Composed in 1920 in loose verse, it is divided into four parts and creates a perfect dialogue between art and word, between the pictorial work and the poetic work. Unamuno makes constant references to particular details of the painting, such as the Nazarene’s black hair, his white, lifeless body, the dark background contrasting with Christ’s white body, the four nails instead of three. “Por qué ese velo de cerrada noche / de tu abundosa cabellera negra / de nazareno cae sobre tu frente?”: this is how the poetic work opens, and then proceeds with several comparisons to the white body (“Blanco tu cuerpo está como el espejo del padre de la luz”; “blanco tu cuerpo al modo de la luna”; “blanco tu cuerpo está como la hostia del cielo”) in contrast to the night. “El Hombre muerto que no muere / blanco cual luna de la noche” is defined by the poet as the crucified Christ, in a constant simile with the white moon of the night: “Blanca luna / como el cuerpo del Hombre en cruz”; indeed, it seems to be a moonlight that emanates from his body, a dim light that leads to meditation and to remain silent in observing so much beauty. It is a scene that represents a death that actually gives life and hope, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice: “Por Ti nos vivifica esa tu muerte [...] vela el Hombre que dió toda su sangre / por que las gentes sepan que son hombres. / Tú salvaste a la muerte.” And at the same time he guides, “cual luna, anuncia el alba a los que viven / perdidos.”

The intensity of the poem fully mirrors the intensity of the painting, even though almost three centuries apart: it is an extraordinary example of how the word can intertwine and amalgamate with the image, returning to posterity a total work of great beauty.

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