The wooden panel depicting the Crucifixion of Christ, which is currently on display in the Calling on the Past exhibition, is a gem in the collections of the Smart Museum of Art. It was painted around 1350 in Siena, then one of Italy’s major centers of artistic production, though its creator remains anonymous. With its small dimensions (55.5 x 25.5 cm), it was intended to serve as a visual aid for private religious meditations and prayers. The painting would have been employed in ways similar to how many Christians use sacred art to this day, to stimulate their imagination and emotions.
By the later Middle Ages, the Crucifixion had become one of the most frequently depicted subjects in European art. This panel is special in that its iconography focuses on St. Mary Magdalene, presenting her as a role model for the Christ-loving, repentant sinner seeking forgiveness—and finding it.
The stage-like display of the figures close to the panel’s lower edge invites the beholder to move closer and contemplate the scene. To the right of the cross we see the Mother of God with her dark blue veil. She is surrounded by a small group of mourning disciples. Attracting the viewer’s attention with her bright red cloak, Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross, clutching it in deep sorrow. With her lavish attire and her long blonde hair exposed, she stands out among her veiled female companions.
Her portrayal here and in many other images of the Crucifixion reflects the Magdalene’s common identification with Mary of Bethany, who anointed Christ’s feet and wiped them with her hair, an event prefiguring his imminent death (John 12:1–8). The Magdalene’s depiction also mirrors the conflation of John’s narrative with the Lucan account of the penitent woman who anointed Jesus in Simon the Pharisee’s house (Luke 7:36–50). This episode earlier in Christ’s ministry reminds the beholder that the Magdalene’s sins were forgiven after she wept at Jesus’s feet and dried them with her hair.
An unusual feature of the Smart’s panel is that the Magdalene is the center of attention for both Christ’s mother and his favorite disciple John, who points compassionately at the kneeling sinner. Turning his sorrowful face to the Virgin Mary, he invites her intercession with Christ on the Magdalene’s behalf. Accordingly, Mary looks up at her son, holding her palms in front of her body in a typical gesture of prayer.
The visual allusions to the anointment episode underscore the redemptive effect of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. They reassure the faithful contemplating this painting that they, too, can gain the remission of their sins through their ardent love of Christ and genuine penitence. The portrayal of the Magdalene as a role model and the presence of a total of four women among Christ’s followers might indicate that the work was commissioned by or for a woman. Praying in front of it, she would, in her turn, have hoped to obtain redemption with the aid of the Mother of God, who in Christian female piety holds a special place as a powerful intercessor. Siena had a particularly close bond with the Virgin Mary as the community’s main patron saint; in the late medieval imagination, the Virgin guarded the keys to the city.
Also noteworthy in this depiction of the Crucifixion is the group of Christ’s enemies on the other side of the cross. Their presence in the piece reinforces the theme of salvation. Up front, we see the Roman centurion who was ultimately able to recognize Christ as the Son of God (Matt 27:54). Next to him stands the soldier who pierced Christ’s side with his lance (John 19:33–34). He was later called Longinus and became venerated as a saint. In fact, both Romans have haloes. Interestingly, though, the artist rendered the haloes of Christ’s former adversaries in a polygonal shape to distinguish them from his mourning followers. Both Longinus and the centurion embody the idea of conversion to the Christian faith, like the Magdalene.
Christians also venerate St. Mary Magdalene as the first woman to witness the resurrection of Jesus when she met him outside the tomb (John 20:11–18). This painting strongly alludes to Christ’s resurrection with the detail of the nest atop the cross. The motif was inspired by the Physiologus, a popular didactic work in which animals, plants, and stones are associated with the Christian plan of salvation. The Physiologus relates the anecdote of a mother pelican who, after weeping over her dead chicks for three days, is able to revive them with her blood flowing from a wound in her side—an obvious allusion to Christ’s salvific deed.
When we admire artifacts from the long-distant past in museums, we need to bear in mind that these works have been severed from their original context. The Crucifixion panel has come down to us as a fragment; it is the surviving right panel of a former diptych. A second panel was attached to it with hinges, so that the object could be opened for display and closed while not in use. In fact, it was never intended to be hung on a wall. Opened at an angle, the original diptych was meant to be set up standing, for instance, on an altar in an oratory or a monastic cell.
But what did the lost panel show? Several related artifacts that survive intact offer clues, such as two diptychs now kept at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. It is very likely that the Smart’s lost panel depicted the enthroned Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, possibly accompanied by other figures. Such images highlight the Virgin’s role as the woman who enabled the Incarnation of Christ.
The theme of the Son of God’s assuming flesh was also visualized in the roundels accommodated in the pediments of the former diptych. In ways similar to a diptych at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Virgin Mary above the Crucifixion once directed her gaze toward the Archangel Gabriel depicted vis-à-vis in the very moment of his Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38).
In its original state, the late medieval diptych from Siena displayed an elaborate theological program that illuminated the Christian plan of salvation and prompted its viewers to reflect upon their place in this plan. Inviting them to picture themselves in the role of the Magdalene, the surviving panel of the Crucifixion conveys a message of hope by emphasizing the prospect of redemption.
Haskins, Susan. 1993. Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Physiologus: A Medieval Book of Nature Lore. 2009. Translated by Michael J. Curley. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Steinhoff, Judith B. 2006. Sienese Painting after the Black Death: Artistic Pluralism, Politics, and the New Art Market. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, Sue and Richard A. Born, eds. 1990. The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with the Smart Museum.
Smart Sightings is a new partnership between the Martin Marty Center and the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art. This series invites readers to contemplate the many connections between art and religion through written reflections on pieces in the Smart’s exhibition, Calling on the Past: Selections from the Collection, which runs through February 4, 2024. Featuring illuminating pairings of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, Calling on the Past encourages viewers to see the collection—and themselves—with fresh eyes.
Karin Krause is an Associate Professor of Byzantine Art and Religious Culture in the Divinity School. She specializes in the Christian visual cultures of Byzantium and the premodern Mediterranean region. Her most recent monograph is Divine Inspiration in Byzantium: Notions of Authenticity in Art and Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2022).