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

Video transcript
(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: Under a black night sky, with this dim light and this sense of doom, the Virgin Mary's fingers are knit together in one of the most startling and stark images. Dr. Harris: We're looking at one of the jewels in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Roger van der Weyden's, The Crucifixion, with the Mourning Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist This is a radically reduced, simplified image that because of that reduction, conveys extraordinary emotional power. Dr. Zucker: There's a sense of solemnity here that is overpowering. The geometry creates eternal mourning, as if these figures will always be in this deep grief. Dr. Harris: We're looking at an earthly scene, the scene of the crucifixion. Dr. Zucker: On Golgotha. Dr. Harris: Right, the hill outside of Jerusalem where Christ was crucified, but there is a sense that we're not looking at that scene in the way that we usually do, where we see on either side the two thieves who were crucified along with Jesus, a landscape behind him filled with figures, other mourners at the base of the cross. This isn't so much a representation of the crucifixion as it is a representation of the idea of the crucifixion. Dr. Zucker: This is almost a emotional distillation. By removing everything that's unnecessary, there's a heightened emotional impact. It suggests to me that this was not meant for a public church, but perhaps it was meant for a monastic environment or an environment where people knew the story well and the idea here was to just intensify the emotion, to intensify the spiritual. Dr. Harris: Right, to simplify the image as a kind of aid in prayer and visualization to help us, as viewers, to feel the emotion that Mary feels. Dr. Zucker: An art historian has actually pointed out the relationship between this kind of rendering and the monastic work of Fra Angelico, for instance, an artist who's known for elegant and spare, but also very intensely emotional kind of painting. Dr. Harris: Right, and we might think of Fra Angelico's frescoes at the Monastery of San Marco, where he lived. Dr. Zucker: So powerful for me are those red banners that hang and frame both sets of figures. If you look on the left, you see Saint John, who's supporting Mary as she faints. She falls to the ground and we really feel her weight, we see her body under even the heavy cloth that she wears, but she falls so elegantly and so beautifully, but still completely enveloped in her pain. Christ is also beautifully illuminated against that brilliant red ground. That red is so vivid and so beautiful and so rich and so much an expression of the violence and passion and yet, also, the quiet of this moment. I think the thing that I find most startling is not only the black sky, but also that little shadow line behind the red cloths. Those curtains are hanging over that stone wall that creates such a shallow space in the painting as a whole, but they're not actually touching the wall. You'll notice that there's a lip at the top and so they hang over, creating this thin plane of air that's utterly still and because those curtains fall flat, we get a sense of the airlessness of this space, as if nothing is moving, nothing is changing. Dr. Harris: Yet, that very same shadow also convinces us of the reality of this scene and it makes it all the more concrete and palpable and also creates a flat vibrant surface that makes Christ's body stand out almost like sculpture. Dr. Zucker: Because that cloth had recently been folded and it's creases have not yet fallen out, there's a grid behind the body, as well. The strictness of the geometry against the body creates a kind of formality that is, in some ways, very powerful, visually. You've got the organic, stressed, tortured body against lines that are clear and structured. It makes it all the more vivid. Dr. Harris: It also contrasts with the fluttering of his loincloth, a kind of spiritual feeling within this otherwise very still and somber image. Dr. Zucker: That somberness is the result of the darks above, of the shallowness, and of course, of the sense of stillness. As you said, this is a painting that is really about our own reflection on these events. Look below Christ's feet, you can just see the little hill that is Golgotha, represented schematically. Just in front of that, you can see that there's a small ravine, which separates these spiritual figures, this spiritual space from our world, but on our side of that crevice, you see a skull. It's traditional to represent this skull, but this particular skull is staring out at us and seems to be a kind of warning, to be a kind of reminder, a reminder of death, a memento mori. Dr. Harris: Specifically, a reminder that Christ is our path away from death to eternal life in heaven. We're going to die, but it's through Christ's sacrifice on the cross, which is rendered so very close to that skull. The blood of the wound from the nail on his feet, drawing our eye down toward that skull. Dr. Zucker: In a typically northern fashion, that bolt that so violently pierces Christ's feet is painted with a vividness, an accuracy that makes it seem absolutely believable. Dr. Harris: This painting is really a remarkable combination of details that are rendered incredibly realistically, like that bolt or the creases in the cloth and then these supernatural elements. Dr. Zucker: There's also Mary being comforted by John, but Christ, the most tortured figure, is absolutely alone, that there is this sense of isolation, that there really is no way to comfort Christ. There's something terribly tragic that results from this. Dr. Harris: The way that John looks at Christ, there's a sense of how did we as humanity do this to God? This shallow space, this emphasis on human emotion. Paintings that are especially pared down, especially acetic are typical of his later work. (jazz music)