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Van der Weyden, Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at an astoundingly beautiful painting by the Great Northern Renaissance painter Roger Vander Heiden this is the crucifixion with the Virgin and st. John the Evangelist morning when you walk into the galleries this is an arresting image Christ's suffering is so apparent Mary's grief so profound and my eye is drawn to Mary even more than to Christ on the cross every ounce of her being expresses that grief she can't stand up that's why John is behind her holding her up if you look at her fingers they're in this unusual knotted position it's as if the stress and the anxiety has overwhelmed everything about her and those hands suggest to me both the anguish of her grief but also a prayer to God the hands operate in both of those ways and of course then there are the Magnificent tears that stream down her face it's so spare it's so reduced in its elements we have the figures we have the cost of Honor we have a stone wall we have a hill and that's it which focuses our attention when we look very closely at Christ it's truly terrifying we have the blood dripping down his feet the nail in his skin yeah that nail is amazing my favorite gruesome detail is the nub of flesh that the nail pushes up on his foot so you get a real sense of that nail penetrating Christ's feet and then the blood that drips down accentuates our feeling I get very tense when I look at it crucifixions were tortured we also have the blood dripping down from the wound in his side and blood on his head from the crown of thorns so this terrible suffering also in the way that his body hangs the way that his ribcage lifts up because the weight is hanging from his arms and this carefully observed attention to human anatomy that ribcage the muscles and the abdomen muscles and the arms and legs even though overall the body is elongated and so many other precisely observed details the stone on the back wall the moss growing on the ground beneath the cross the water stained stone at the top of the ledge the creases of the folds of the cloth of honor the tassels at the bottom of the cloth at Christ's feet when you look at it from a distance you may not recognize all of these details but as you get up close and your eye moves around the panel's you can see those details what from a distance reads like a pure gray background actually is that water staining which is entirely consistent with the water effects of architecture in Belgium the original location for which these paintings were created that idea of really close observation this love of the visual world but in service of a deeply Christian pious image these are observed features from natural phenomenon that Roger as other artists of his day were we're beginning to look much more closely at the world and then trying to translate that into painting in other art forms what art historians often call ARS Nova the new art this interest in the 15th century in both Italy and in Northern Europe in closely observing the visual world and rendering it so that the world in the painting resembles our own world which then accentuates the emotional impact and makes it resonate that much more if we can feel as if these are real things that happened there was a movement in the 15th century that was a more personal approach toward prayer being able to think about Christ's suffering think about Mary's response to that suffering and Mary's ability then as an intercessor for mankind she suffered along with Christ she can help us achieve salvation and so in the painting she acts almost as a surrogate for how we feel or how the original viewer of this who was in meshed in a Christian environment would have felt and been instructed to feel about the crucifixion and you can see how they were meant to go together the green of the landscape continues from left to right the Virgin Mary's blue dress is present in books work so we know that these would have been seen together for so long our historians assumed that these two paintings were meant to go together as a diptych in other words as a painting that is compared of two panels but recent research has uncovered a much more interesting history we now think that these two panels were the central panels of the outside of an altarpiece that when opened was 26 feet wide which is enormous not only for our perspective but would have made it among the largest altarpiece is ever created in northern Europe recently two other paintings which were originally on the backs of these two pictures have been identified so when these two panels were opened you got to see the paintings that were on the back and on the back of the panel that shows the Virgin Mary and Saint John was a scene of the Annunciation and on the back of the crucifixion was a scene of the apparition of Christ appearing to the Virgin Mary after his death but there are so many panels that we still don't know what the subject was what we have is the crucifixion on one panel and the Virgin Mary's response to that on the other and if she's the recurring figure in all of these scenes and the altarpiece it puts the emphasis as much if not more on her response to Christ her son's torture we have the vibrant red of the costs of Honor that remind me of the violence of this moment but the blue and pink seem surprisingly paled they're paler than what you often find in representations of the Virgin and st. John version especially known for being shown in blue garments and the exterior were more restrained in their approach to color as a way of setting you up for what would happen on special feast days holidays when the altarpiece was opened these panels operated as doors as it portals on to something else there were shutters that covered an interior and so often what you would see when you enter the church would be these but on special occasions they would be opened and so the artist needed to build the anticipation for their special events of looking at the other parts of the altarpiece there are many reasons why art historians think that these opened onto a sculpted Center and we have to imagine these sculptures painted gilded very much looking alive to the people who were in the church praying it was a multimedia experience and it goes beyond the paintings the sculptures but also the space of the church itself all of these working in tandem to create a moving experience I have a much better sense now of what the experience of this painting was in the 15th century you