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

Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning, c. 1460, oil on panel, 71 x 73-3/8 inches / 180.3 x 186.4 cm (Philadelphia Museum of Art). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Woman] We're in the Philadelphia Museum of Art looking at an astoundingly beautiful painting by the great Northern Renaissance painter, Rogier van der Weyden. This is The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning. 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. - [Man] 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 have overwhelmed everything about her. - And those hands suggest to me both the anguish of her grief, but also 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. - Its so spare, its so reduced in its elements. - We have the figures, we have the cloths 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. Crucifixion's were torture. - 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 in the abdomen, muscles in 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, 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 panels, 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 Rogier, as other artists of his day, were beginning to look much more closely at the world and then trying to translate that into painting and 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. It 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 enmeshed in a Christian environment would have felt, and then 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 both works, so we know that these would have been seen together. - For so long, art historians assumed that these two paintings were meant to go together as a diptych. In other words, as a painting that is comprised 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 altarpieces 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 puts the emphasis as much, if not more, on her response to Christ's, her son's, torture. - We have the vibrant red of the cloths of honor that remind me of the violence of this moment, but the blue and pink seem surprisingly pale. - They're paler than what you often find in representations of the Virgin and Saint John, the version especially known for being shown in blue garments and the exteriors 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 portals onto something else. They were shutters that covered an interior, and so, often what you would see when you would 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 multi-media 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. (gentle piano music)