This poignant depiction of Christ on the Cross, which seamlessly blends extreme pictorial refinement with a heightened sense of pathos, is a unique example of Lucas Cranach the Elder's rendition of the theme on such an intimate scale. The picture is little-known as it has remained unpublished since its inclusion in a 1959 London auction. Despite this, the painting's full attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder has never been challenged and was recently confirmed by Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Dieter Koepplin, on the basis of photographs (written communication, 18 March 2013).
This picture can be dated to circa 1530-1535 on stylistic grounds and is the only Crucifixion securely attributed to Cranach the Elder to focus on the lone figure of Christ, without the usual broader rendition of Calvary. Only two other panels of this dramatic composition are known - one attributed to his studio (Dublin, The National Gallery of Ireland) and another to his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (on parchment; Berlin, private collection). For an artist known to have produced numerous replicas of his own work, this fact alone makes this Crucifixion an absolute rarity.
Cranach fills the picture frame with the suffering body of the crucified Christ, thus enhancing the poignancy of the subject. The artist has discarded all of the narrative elements and numerous other figures that usually populate his depictions of Calvary, such as in the busy Crucifixion from circa 1510-1515 (Frankfurt, Städel-Museum). In the Frankfurt panel, fighting for the viewer's attention are the two crucified thieves, below which stands an agitated crowd composed of Christ's followers: John the Evangelist and the two Marys supporting the swooning Virgin, while the Magdalene embraces the cross; and Christ's tormentors: Longinus, the High Priest and various soldiers. In both paintings, the slender figure of Christ is very similar: His head, heavy with an unusually large crown of thorns, droops to the left, and the cross is similarly made of partly-stripped tree trunks. By contrast, the magnetic power of this Crucifixion lies in its utter sobriety, purity and directness: there is nothing left to distract the beholder from Christ's suffering.
This visual strategy, emphasising the iconic over the narrative character of the image, would have brilliantly served the original function of the painting as an object of private devotion. Cranach encourages the viewer's compassion for Christ's sacrifice through an intense and vivid rendition of His tortured, vulnerable body: His pierced hands and feet are contorted and deformed by pain, His body covered with the many marks of his earlier flagellation, His gaping side wounds overflowing with blood. His eyes half-closed, He gazes down in sorrow and humble acceptance of his brutal fate. A silent cry comes out of His open mouth showing His teeth, an indecorous yet highly emotive detail. In this painting, Cranach achieves the crude realism mastered by his German contemporary, Matthias Grünewald.
Faithful to the Biblical texts, the painter engulfs the figure of Christ in darkness, recalling the miraculous eclipse that took place during his martyrdom: 'And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst' (Luke 23:44-5). Cranach exploits the divine wind accompanying the eclipse to extraordinary pictorial effect by having Christ's loincloth describe a supremely elegant double arabesque. The rocky landscape beyond, still not covered with darkness, is graphically rendered with swift and virtuosic outlines.
The reverse of the panel provides an unexpected and highly valuable account of both the enduring and far-reaching impact of Cranach's creation. A seventeenth-century inscription, running over the entire back of the picture, indicates that it belonged to Alamanno di Stefano, a member of the retinue of the papal nuncio Giovanni Battista Rinuccini (1592-1653) during their mission to Ireland at the time of the Confederate War of 1645-1649. A native of Florence and a man of letters, named Archbishop of Fermo in 1625, Rinuccini was sent to Ireland by Pope Innocent X. With a cargo of weapons and monetary funds, Rinuccini aimed at providing decisive support to the Irish Catholics in their fight against the Protestant English forces. He sought to make Ireland an independent Catholic kingdom, and eventually, he might even have hoped that a victory in Ireland would be the starting point for a Catholic reconquest of England itself, then in the midst of the Civil War, but he returned to Italy, defeated, in 1649.
Alamanno di Stefano vividly describes how the Italian delegation 'miraculously escaped' the many perils of their stay: 'Always in the mouth of death, undermined by those damned English, Scottish and Hybernes [Irish] heretics'. This portable devotional work would have accompanied its owner on his diplomatic and military travels in the British Isles. During this extraordinary journey to these hostile, 'heretic' lands, Cranach's Crucifixion must have acted as some sort of protective talisman to Alamanno and his companions. Its moving religious subject would have reminded them of their mission.
Alamanno further recounts that he safely returned with the picture to Fermo where he served archbishop Rinuccini until the latter's death. The Crucifixion certainly remained in Italy, for it reappears about two centuries later in the fine collection assembled by the American connoisseur Charles Loeser at his Florentine villa of Torre Gattaia. Loeser was a Harvard classmate of Bernard Berenson who later described him as '[his] most fierce enemy-friend and would be competitor, as well as really fine collector' (letter of Bernard Berenson to Mrs. Alfred Barr, 22 April 1941, as cited in McComb, ed., The Selected Letters of Bernard Berenson, Boston, 1964, p. 182).
This eclectic later history of the picture is a testament to the power of Cranach's art and its ability to travel across both space - reaching a seventeenth-century Italian audience accustomed to a very different kind of art - and time, defying shifting tastes without losing its pertinence as an object of devotion for Alamanno di Stefano, or, for Charles Loeser, as an object of sheer intrinsic beauty.