In Defense of “The Crucifixion”

by Walker Byrd

last edited on Thu. December 14 2023

In a sequestered corner of the exhibition Calling on the Past hangs a modest wooden panel adorned in gold leaf and velvet that depicts the Crucifixion of Jesus. The scene’s violence and unidealized display of human corporeal suffering is transferable from work to viewer, superseding personal religious belief. Yet this specific example of the aesthetic tastes of proto-Renaissance Tuscany remains overshadowed by the more popular headliners of the period. Lying behind the work’s unassuming iconography, however, is a noteworthy object with a disputed and fragmented history.

To begin, knowledge of the painter’s identity has been lost to the centuries between the work’s creation and today. The label on the object’s outer frame (itself not original) attributes the painting to the descriptive “Master of the Ovile Madonna” and prior to this attribution existed a rotating list of various potential painters: Ugolino da Siena, Pietro Lorenzetti, Ugolino Lorenzetti, and Bartolommeo Bulgarini. Any one of these men, now shades to history, are as likely to be the actual painter as it is plausible for none of them to be.

Furthermore, though the narrative depicted in this panel remains intelligible to the modern viewer, the full significance of the work is impossible to fully understand while it remains incomplete. Simply put, this panel is only the right half of a diptych, a two-paneled altarpiece likely used as a private devotional object; the left panel has been lost. What was depicted on this paired panel? How was the work displayed in its time? Were the two panels hinged or fixed? Despite that the subject of the Crucifixion in art history is so well-understood to the point that each iconographic element in the panel can be easily ascertained, we quite literally are missing half of the story, and no amount of traditional analysis will allow us to fully uncover its mysteries.

In the discipline of art history exists a desire for objects, people, movements, and cultures to neatly fall into categorical boxes. As such, the Crucifixion, which is difficult to center with traditional art historical methods by virtue of a lack of information, will therefore be overshadowed by works that provide more direct answers to modern examiners. This is a fault. To more fully understand the exact significance of works that do not provide simple answers, requires a restructuring of the questions asked. Rather than fruitlessly sleuthing the identity of the painter or the exact iconographic nature of the altarpiece’s other half, academic inquiry instead can and should be reconfigured away from individualist interpretations to favor holistic examination which factor in the work’s lived experience, focusing on subject matter such as the collaborative process of the altarpiece or its power as an embodied object in Tuscan society, meant to be touched and used. Only by expanding our own criteria for understanding and appreciating works without simple answers can a new, relevant cultural value can be reclaimed for these objects today.

Walker Byrd is a fourth-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, majoring in Art History and minoring in both Italian and Education & Society. His art historical interests are broad, but his specialty lies in the arts of Renaissance Italy. Beyond his studies, you might see him around the gallery as an intern for the Smart Museum of Art's registration department this winter and spring.