Le Christ sur la croix (1853)

Delacroix, Eugène (1798-1863)

Le Christ sur la croix (Christ on the Cross)
Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 59.7 cm
National GalleryLondon

Delacroix depicts a moment described in Gospel of John, when Christ addresses his mother, the Virgin Mary, and one of his disciples, John, just before he dies (John 19: 25–30). Christ’s mother, dressed in distinctive blue and yellow robes, collapses into the arms of Mary Cleophas and John. At the foot of the cross, Mary Magdalene prays as she looks up at Christ. Judas Iscariot is not normally shown in such scenes, but Delacroix includes him in the lower right corner. Judas now understands the consequences of his betrayal of Christ. Two Roman soldiers in the mid-distance on the left observe the scene.

Despite the relatively small size of the canvas, Delacroix achieves great dramatic effect by placing the viewer at the same level as the figures compressed together in the lower right-hand corner as we, too, look up at Christ’s body. By reducing the landscape to a narrow band, Delacroix gives further emphasis to the human drama of their reactions. The greenish-grey pallor of Christ’s body is particularly striking and is amplified by the greys and pinkish-browns of the stormy sky that fills most of the picture. The red robes echo the blood flowing from Christ’s wounds. In many of Delacroix’s later paintings, rigid distinctions between a sketch and a finished painting can be blurred. In this picture, the agitated quality of the brushwork – which ranges from thin wisps to thick clots of paint – gives the painting the immediacy of a sketch and an expressive energy that animates the entire canvas.

Throughout his life, Delacroix studied and made copies of Old Master paintings. Most pertinent to this picture was the The Coup de lance by Rubens (1620, Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp) which Delacroix copied twice from memory, possibly following his second trip to Belgium in 1850. This admiration for Rubens was part of Delacroix’s wider appreciation of the often deeply expressive religious paintings of Northern European artists, including Jacob Jordaens and Rembrandt. The critic Théophile Gautier also noted a more contemporary reference, to Christ on the Cross (LouvreParis) by Pierre-Paul Prud‘hon, that had been exhibited at the Salon of 1822.

Delacroix depicted stories and incidents from the Bible many times, but the Crucifixion was a subject to which he often returned, especially in his later years. He had previously exhibited a larger version of the Crucifixion, showing Christ between the two thieves (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Vannes), at the Salon of 1835 and had exhibited another Crucifixion at the Salon of 1847 in which a more centrally placed Christ is the primary focus (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore). Several oil and pastel sketches were also produced in the late 1840s. This version of the Crucifixion shows that Delacroix was still exploring new ways of rendering the subject in the 1850s.

The critic and poet Charles Baudelaire, Delacroix’s greatest champion and most perceptive contemporary viewer, claimed that Delacroix created genuinely authentic religious art because of the affinity between his temperament and the true sentiment of Christianity: ‘perhaps he alone, in this century of nonbelievers, has created religious paintings that were neither empty nor cold, like some works created for competition, nor pedantic, nor mystical, nor neo-Christian … the genuine sadness for which he had a flair was perfectly suited to our religion, a profoundly sad religion.’ (NG)