The cross of Christ is placed more or less in the centre of the composition in a frontal position and more towards the foreground of the painting, while the crosses of the good and the bad thief are positioned slightly further away from the observer, one more so than the other, in keeping with the painting’s diagonal line.
This dynamic horizontality is further enhanced by the expressive contortion of the figure of the bad thief, which, in the upper third of the painting, contradicts any idea of symmetry in the figurative field and heightens the dramatic nature of the scene.
A multitude of guards and executioners watch the agonising death of the three crucified figures, filling the figurative field with a marked horizontality and monumentality.
The cross of Christ, together with the presence of the horses and the representation of the scene alluding to the division of Christ’s cloak, allows for different placements of the figures in this ground of the painting, representing a wall of faces and spears that cuts into the intensely dramatic light of the sky, barely making it possible to glimpse the distant city of Jerusalem on the left.
Yet the formal regularity of this group is broken as it pushes towards the foreground (to the limit of the figurative field, in a rigorous and compact triangular structure) the group of figures that are central to the theme – the Virgin Mary swooning among the holy women, Mary Magdalene and St. John.
On the opposite side, although it is less saturated with figurations, the space is marked by the spectacular twisting figure, with his back to the observer, and by interesting visual solutions that have a constant presence in, and concern with, the light.
The plants and the bones, besides providing a symbolic allusion to the Mount Calvary as the burial place of Adam and Eve, also serve a purpose in terms of the painting’s overall perspective.
Contributing to the image’s narrative quality and symbolic intensity, the theme of the Crucifixion is further enhanced on both sides of the painting by the arrival of the ladder, on the left, and the hanging of Judas, on the right.
Judas is already hanged, but next to him is the devil who is taking his soul away from him. Although the figurative scale is minimal, one should note the realism and drama that result from the presence of the cloak hung over the branch used for the hanging.
In the predella, the scene of Christ appearing before Pontius Pilate anticipates the moment of the Calvary.
The central scene alluding to the Descent from the Cross is the most interesting from the artistic point of view, repeating with only a few variants the triangular arrangement of the Virgin Mary depicted swooning in the main panel. In the surrounding scenario that frames this scene, in a city that has been modelled with extraordinary realism, there appears one of the architectural features most recurrently found in a second phase of the artist’s work – the entrance gate to his fantastic walled cities.
Appearing among various other phantasmagorias in the scene of the Descent into Limbo are the figures of Adam and Eve.
Calvary (c. 1530) by Vasco FernandesGrão Vasco National Museum
Author: Dalila Rodrigues
Edition: Grão Vasco Museum
Translation: John Elliott
Digital production: Luís Ramos Pinto