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Current time:0:00Total duration:4:57

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and we're looking at a Rogier van der Weyden, one of the great Flemish artists of the 15th century. This is his crucifixion. Beth: It's divided into three parts that are connected by hinges. But it didn't always look this way. Steven: It was originally one large panel. Somebody later cut it into three parts, put a hinge on it, but what's so interesting is that Rogier van der Weyden had originally conceived of this as a triptych. That is to say, he created a painting that made it look like it was a triptych. Beth: And you can still see the frame on what is today the right and left panels, the frame that is that he painted. Steven: So it was an illusion of the thing that it has now become. (laughs) Beth: That's true. (laughs) It's quite complicated. Steven: So let's look at the image itself. The large central panel has Christ on the cross in the center. He's being mourned by the Virgin Mary at his feet. John the Evangelist is coming to comfort her. The two figures on the right would have been the patrons of Rogier van der Weyden. These are the people who paid the artist to make the painting, the donors. Beth: Interestingly the artist included them within the space of the crucifixion, right near Mary and John. Something that was really an innovation. Steven: So there's kind of an incredible intimacy here. They are present, they are watching. Actually they're not quite present. The artist has separated them only by that small fissure in the earth. Beth: And so they would have seen themselves at the crucifixion. In that way, paintings like this were aids in prayer so that you could move from the painting to your own mental image of the crucifixion and imagine what this moment was like for Mary, for Christ, for St. John. Steven: In an interior sense and in fact if we look at the male donor, he seems to be looking at the scene itself, whereas the female patron seems to be having that kind of interior conversation that you were speaking of. So characteristic of the northern tradition is this intense focus on the particular, on a kind of careful rendering, a kind of clarified vision. And look at the heavenly city of Jerusalem in the background. Now this might look like a contemporary northern city, and it kind of does, I think van der Weyden was more looking out his window than looking at Jerusalem. Beth: Or sort of using that as the inspiration. Steven: But nevertheless, it is meant to be the heavenly Jerusalem. And you can see the way he delights in the kind of architectural detail, you can see some Gothic lancet windows and just a bustling city. Beth: And that clarity is in the background but it's also in the foreground. We see it in the fluttering loincloth that Christ wears. That unrealistically loops up and back and around sort of framing his body. Or we could look down at the careful rendering of the ruffles around Mary's face. Or in the fur worn by the donors around their cuffs and collars. Steven: When you mentioned the cloth that wraps around Christ's waist, it does remind us that we've left the physical world and we're looking at the spiritual world above. And that kind of arabesque will become a motif in later northern painting. On the two side wings, we have two other important Saints. Mary Magdalene on the left and Veronica on the right. Beth: Mary Magdalene is holding a jar and that's the jar of ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet. And on the right we see Veronica whose cloth wiped Christ's face while he was carrying the cross and whose image miraculously appeared on that cloth. She holds it so delicately, like it's such a very fragile but precious object and in the way that she holds it and the way she tilts her head, and also if we look at Mary Magdalene who wipes the tears from her eyes with her cloak, we see something that is very characteristic of Rogier van der Weyden and that is an interest in emotions. Steven: That sense of emotion can be seen in the angels above, but it can also be seen so vividly in the Virgin Mary's face and St. John's face. There's an intensity of the trauma of this torture that they've witnessed. Beth: Look at Mary. This looks like a woman who's been crying for hours. Her face is pale and red, her eyes are mostly closed and puffy, and the way that she lifts up her arms and embraces the cross so desperately as the blood drips down from Christ's feet and she presses her cheek against it. Steven: Veronica is so interesting to me because she holds that cloth, that true image of Christ. Her name, Veronica, means "true image," and so it's a perfect kind of a lighting. Beth: And she holds up an image of Christ that looks miraculously very real and it's miraculous, to me, what Rogier van der Weyden has been able to achieve on this triptych. (piano playing)