Crucifixion Diptych — also known as Philadelphia Diptych, Calvary Diptych, Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St. John, or The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning — is a diptych by the Early Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden, completed c. 1460, today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
This one packs a powerful punch – immediately personal and eloquently simple.
At first I couldn’t believe it was actually from the 15th century. The composition and colors look so modern to me – and quite different from Rogier van der Weyden’s other works. To answer my own questions, I gathered resources to learn more about the Crucifixion Diptych. Some of my initial notes are recorded below.
The Narrative: Despair and Redemption
Katherine Crawford Luber says the following:
“The greatest old master painting in the Museum, Rogier van der Weyden’s diptych presents the Crucifixion as a timeless dramatic narrative. To convey overwhelming depths of human emotion, Rogier located monumental forms in a shallow, austere, nocturnal space accented only by brilliant red hangings.
He focused on the experience of the Virgin, her unbearable grief expressed by her swooning into the arms of John the Evangelist. The intensity of her anguish is echoed in the agitated, fluttering loincloth that moves around Christ’s motionless body as if the air itself were astir with sorrow.
Rogier’s use of two panels in a diptych, rather than the more usual three found in a triptych, is rare in paintings of this period, and allowed the artist to balance the human despair at the darkest hour of the Christian faith against the promise of redemption.” Katherine Crawford Luber, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), Philadelphia Museum of Art, p. 167
“The innovative conception, sophisticated composition, and singular spiritual intensity of this Crucifixion scene are characteristic of Rogier van der Weyden’s widely influential art. The centrally divided composition encourages contemplation of compassio, the parallel suffering of Christ and his mother. As Christ dies, John the Evangelist stumbles forward to support the collapsing Virgin, whose fumbling, clenched hands simultaneously suggest prayer and anguish, elegantly distilling the scene’s spiritually exalted pathos.”
The Function – An Alterpiece
Recent scholarship proposes that the panels functioned as the outer shutters of a carved altarpiece. According to Mark S. Tucker,
“Although many scholars believed that these large panels were conceived as an independent diptych, closer study of their construction and the discovery of two paintings originally on their opposite sides (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Musee des Beaux-Arts Dijon) indicate that this scene occupied the exterior faces of hinged shutters, or wings, that closed over an immense, now-lost altarpiece.
Further, the combined stylistic traits found on the Philadelphia paintings—including their shallow pictorial space and bold, full-color composition extending across adjacent panels—links them to winged altarpieces bearing carved wood sculptures on their interiors (see, for example, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1945-25-117,a–s).
The monumentality and iconic starkness of these paintings would have provided striking counterpoints to the teeming forms and glittering opulence of the painted and gilded sculpture groups revealed when the wings were opened.
Esteemed as an extraordinarily affecting object of contemplation and devotion in its own right, this imposing masterwork, part of the John G. Johnson Collection at the Museum, merits additional consideration as a brilliant threshold and deeply sympathetic foil to sculpture.”
Mark S. Tucker, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 98–99.
Video from Smarthistory
Video From Philadelphia Museum of Art
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The Philadelphia Museum of Art describes this work as the “greatest Old Master painting in the Museum.” The diptych was executed late in the artist’s life, and is unique among paintings of the early Northern Renaissance in its utilization of a flat, unnatural background to stage figures which are themselves highly detailed. Nonetheless, the contrast of vivid primary reds and whites serves to achieve an emotional effect typical of van der Weyden’s best work. Karel van Mander wrote that the great artistic contribution of Rogier van der Weyden lies in his ideas, his composition and rendering of the soul’s expression through pain, happiness or anger, and the tempering of this emotional testimony to the subject matter of his work.
To me, the Crucifixion Diptych, even ravaged by war and separated from its original altar piece, is a perfect representation of both beauty and truth.
Thanks for reading! 🙂
- Title: The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning
- Date: c. 1460
- Location: Netherlands (historical name, 15th-16th century)
- Physical Dimensions: w73.38 x h71 in (Overall)
- Description: Companion paintings
- Artist/Maker:Rogier van der Weyden, Netherlandish (active Tournai and Brussels), 1399/1400 – 1464
- Provenance: John G. Johnson Collection, 1917
- Type: Paintings
- External Link: Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Medium: Oil on panel
Katherine Crawford Luber, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 167, online https://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102845.html (accessed August 13, 2018).