Images of the Crucifixion hit a nerve in 14th and 15th-century Europe. Martin Gayford explores the effect of these unusually intense paintings
In 1413, an English woman named Margery Kempe set out from Yarmouth for the Holy Land. She travelled via Constance and Venice and finally reached Jerusalem. While she was there, she was granted a 'showing'. "It was granted to this creature [by which Margery meant herself] to behold so verily his precious tender body all rent and torn with scourges, fuller of wounds than ever was a dove house full of holes, hanging on the cross with the crown of thorns on his head, his beautiful hands, his tender feet nailed to the hard tree ... then she fell down and cried with a loud voice, wonderfully turning and wresting her body on every side, spreading her arms abroad as if she would have died."
While Margery Kempe's reaction was unusually intense, the effort to visualise scenes from Christ's life – the Crucifixion and Nativity in particular – was common. For many people in late mediaeval Europe, however, the vivid and dramatic detail was seen not in visions or dreams, but in images. The Franconian Crucifixion from the 1470s that is to be offered in the Rau Unicef Sale in December is a characteristic and intriguing example.
This picture is evidently an altarpiece, rather than what scholars call an andachtsbild, that is a work intended for private devotion. At almost five feet square, this picture is too large for that; on the other hand, it is on the small side for the high altar of a large church. Perhaps it once stood in a side chapel somewhere in central south-western Germany. Beyond that there is nothing certain about it. Its painter is, as Neil MacGregor once put it, "a victim of anonymity". His point was that, perhaps thanks to Vasari – we like works of art to be assigned to named individuals (although often the artist in question is only a name).
Particularly in the 15th century, however, art history is littered with anonymous pictures. Some are assigned to conjectural figures such as the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece, the artist whom MacGregor was writing about. The creator of the picture from the Rau Collection is even one step further into the shadows than that. He was evidently close to, perhaps identical with, the painter of the wings of a celebrated altarpiece for the Stadtkirche St. Marien in Hersbruck, a town a little east of Nürnberg. About the artist no more can be said, but a lot more about his world and his roots can be deduced from the work.
Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries was crammed with religious images; even after half a millennium of fire, woodworm, flooding, rot and iconoclasm, quantities still exist. Not surprisingly, since the Crucifixion was the central event of the Christian story – with the Incarnation and the Resurrection – it was also one of the most frequently represented. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, it was done with ever increasing realism. This naturalism probably impressed contemporaries with its skill, but it had another purpose, described by David Freedberg in his book The Power of Images. It was intended to affect the emotions of the people who saw it.
As the scholar of mediaeval art George Henderson once wrote, "Late Gothic realism represents an attempt to give the work of art the immediacy of the actual event." A painting or a sculpture might be the focus of a hallucinatory experience similar to Margery Kempe's in the Holy Land. The older East Anglian mystic known as Julian of Norwich (c.1342-c.1416), was shown a crucifix when she lay ill (Julian, despite her name, was a female anchorite living in a cell built into the wall of St Julian's church in Norwich). As her chaplain held it before her eyes, she saw real blood begin to flow from the crown of thorns, "like to the drops of water that fall off the eaves after a great shower of rain".
The painter of this Crucifixion has made efforts to depict the event with earthy realism. Christ's blood flows copiously, dripping down to the earth from his arms and flowing from his legs and feet in a stream down the wood of the Cross. The soldiers at the right are presented with grotesque, even comic realism. There is a suggestion of the evil ugliness that the early Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch gave to Christ's tormentors in the helmeted man at the back, wielding a vicious-looking spiked pike. His companion at the far right, squinting and sticking out his tongue, is downright cartoony.
This too is in accord with the imagination of the mediaeval Christian mind. Julian of Norwich dreamt one night of the devil. "His hair was red as rust, clipped in front, with full locks hanging on the temples. He grinned at me with a malicious semblance, shewing white teeth: and so much me thought it the more horrible. Body nor hands had he none shapely..."
Often in pictures, the viewer is invited to empathise with the intensity of the Magdalene's grief as she prays convulsively at the foot of the Cross. Julian of Norwich saw herself as her companion: "Methought I would have been that time with Mary Magdalene..." In the Florence of the 1490s, Fra Girolamo Savonarola meditated on Christ's appearance. Jesus had, he was sure, "fine complexion, tender, delicate and very sensitive", with "a noble and delicate sense of touch", and his being so sensitive to pain – like Savonarola – that "every little prick was very painful to him". Many works – including the wooden crucifix carved by the young Michelangelo around 1493 – show a sensitive, suffering Christ of just this type.
This was the crucified Christ imagined by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464). In the mid-15th century, Rogier's reputation was immense; in 1453 the German Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa described him as "the greatest of all painters". His style percolated into many parts of northern Europe particularly. It was certainly strong among Franconian painters in Nürnberg.
In our picture there are many echoes – the thin and sensitive-looking Christ figure, the distant walled town standing for Jerusalem, the undulating wooded landscape – of Rogier's Crucifixion triptych in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Van der Weyden's poignant but elegant manner, however, is far from the gore and broad humour of the anonymous Franconian painter. Indeed, he may never have seen an actual work by Rogier. It is clear, however, that he had seen the Crucifixion by Hans Pleydenwurff (c. 1420-1472) that is now in the Alte Pinakotek, Munich – or a very similar picture. The resemblances in the composition, and details such as the armoured man on the extreme right, are too many to be accidental.
Hans Pleydenwurff is an artist about whom we know a little bit. He was probably the son of Kunz Pleydenwurff, a painter who was also mayor of the Franconian city of Bamberg. He moved to Nurnberg, where he had a workshop – and interesting artistic progeny. Another artist, Michael Wohlgemut (1434-1519), married Pleydenwurff's widow, took over his studio and collaborated with his son Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Among Wohlgemut's pupils was the young Albrecht Dürer.
Artistically 15th-century Germany was a more fertile place than you might conclude from British collections (which are poor in German art and particularly so in sculpture). In painting and printmaking, just a generation after this Crucifixion was painted in Bamberg, or possibly Nürnberg, the German-speaking lands produced a series of major artists including Cranach, Grünewald and Altdorfer. The list of sculptors, led by Tilman Riemenschneider and Veit Stoss (also of Nürnberg), is just as strong. In Dürer, Franconia suddenly produced one of the great geniuses of European art.
Of course the painter of this Crucifixion was no Dürer, but he was working in the ambience in which the young Dürer trained. He may well have trained in the same workshop as Dürer's master. We do know it was painted at the beginning of a period of religious turbulence. Within a few decades, not only had Grünewald and Dürer produced their greatest work, but the intense religious feelings of the German-speaking lands had given rise to the Reformation.
Martin Gayford is the author of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, which is published in November.