Crucifixion by Velazquez

This is surely one of the most beautiful images of Christ, or of any man, ever painted.

Christ crucified (248 × 169 cm) by Diego Velázquez,1599–1660 (public domain photo)

In the Prado Museum, Madrid. It is life-size.

It was one of the first commissions Velazquez received after coming back from his first trip to Italy. There he had seen the works of the great Renaissance painters but there’s no trace of them here—no Michelangelo, no Rafael, no Leonardo. The Christ looks more classical Greek than cinquecento Italian. His beauty has been called “Apollo-like”.

And it’s true: this beautiful figure could almost have been painted by Praxiteles or one of the other Greek masters.
It is as though Velazquez had strolled through that great Museum Italy, had seen all the works of art, old and new, and had picked out NOT the recent work of Renaissance masters but the best classical Greek work (available, of course, only through Roman copies).

In fact, on his next trip to Italy, he ordered plaster casts of over two dozen of those classical works to be sent back to Madrid, where you can see them now in the Prado Museum. To his eye, those were the real thing, the best models to have around. He seems to have found Florentine Renaissance exaggeration—Michelangelo’s bombast, Rafael’s cameo prettiness—distasteful. He must have thought that for all their professions of love for the ancient world those big-talking Humanists had missed the point of her art, which was a quiet naturalness. Old Rome had misled them. In art, Rome never knew what she was talking about. So what had so recently been “reborn” was only an ancient misunderstanding of the real thing.

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20 Responses to Crucifixion by Velazquez

  1. wrjones says:

    I can imagine that hanging a little up on a wall and being life size it must be a joy to look at. Or a great sadness I guess if you are religious.

  2. 100swallows says:

    It is, Bill–very impressive. These colors aren’t right. It isn’t so yellowish nor so fuzzy. The flesh color is colder and the background, which looks black on all the reproductions, has a greenish tint. It is simply so perfect you don’t know what to say. Since it is a crucified Christ a guy feels odd about speaking of its artistic merit. It must have brought the nuns it was painted for to tears as effectively as that Passion movie with all the blood moves modern audiences.

  3. cantueso says:

    But Praxiteles is much more stylized. I can’t see that it is similar. Maybe Praxiteles had younger models. I googled and found mainly a young man, almost a boy, and a woman not yet 30, maybe 25(?). This man looks his age or even a little more. Anyway, you are right, this was not meant to be judged only for its aesthetics, and one has seen a whole lot of worse things on this subject.

  4. 100swallows says:

    All right, Cantueso. I said it could “almost” have been painted by Praxiteles. Now I went to look at his Hermes and see that he is much more stylized and robust than Velazquez’s Christ–you got me. I had remembered it as less so. My point was that he preferred the ancient Greek masters to the Renaissance ones; and this Christ seems to me to show their influence and not that of Michelangelo, Rafael, and Leonardo.

  5. iondanu says:

    The hair on the side of his face it’s a nice, rarely seen touch in Jesus portraits… It gives him some feminine quality… No puns intended!

  6. elementaryteacher says:

    Am I not correct in remembering the Prado Museum burned down? I was shocked when I heard it, having spent a lot of time in there myself.

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  7. erikatakacs says:

    He’s beautifully painted, no question about it. And he looks like a real man, not like a skeleton- for a nice change. With his head down, it’s difficult to see suffering on his face. He could have made up for that with the positioning of the body. His broken body should be heavy, very heavy. Hanging down and weighing tonnes. But he’s just standing there on the pedestal almost comfortably, almost weightless. Just wondering, did he do it on purpose (his unconventional portraying of the royal family is an indication) or was he too preoccupied by painting the perfect human body?

  8. 100swallows says:

    Oh, please, Eileen–don’t scare me. No! The Prado has never burned down, thank God. Many of Velazquez’s works were lost when the original Alcazar Palace burned down not long after his death. But that wasn’t the Prado.
    You remind me of an anecdote I read. Nietzsche and his friend Burckhardt, friends and professors at the University of Basel, each heard the false report that the Louvre had burned down and collided in the streets of Basel when running to tell each other.

  9. 100swallows says:

    I may put in a post on this subject, Erika, so hold on. Maybe Velazquez painted a standing Christ like this out of respect for his father-in-law, who had done a similar one years before and who had a theory about a four-nail crucifixion as against the traditional three-nail one. Those were arguments learned men had at the time. In any case, a bloody and exhausted Christ on the cross–such realism as some require today–would have offended Velazquez’s (and many others’) sense of good taste. That wasn’t necessary, even for drama, as he proved here. Of course, you could say Velazquez went too far in the other direction, making Christ into a beautiful nude, which could actually distract the viewer in his contemplation of the Mystery itself.

  10. madsilence says:

    Now I don’t mean to kvetch (and I understand that someone Ohio born and bred might have difficulty with the term) but why Velazquez? And why place the Spanish artist in an adversarial role to Michelangelo? In my estimation Velazquez is one of the greatest realist painters of all time. Velazquez’s art has a power, an emotional content, a spiritual fervor that puts many an abstract artist’s works to shame. Indeed I count Valazquez as an early modernist.

    The work of Michelangelo possesses the same attributes as the Spanish painter. Both artists outshine many modern and postmodern artists whose works of abstraction and installation art cannot begin to compare.

    Interestingly those plaster casts have artistic merit in their own right and have become highly collectible. Cornell University has a collection as does, I believe, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

    MadSilence

  11. 100swallows says:

    Madsilence: The Velazquez VERSUS Michelangelo title was admittedly misleading. The Leonardo vs. Michelangelo and the Tintoretto vs. Michelangelo posts had brought me a lot of hits so I stuck to that kind of title. Why Velazquez? Do you mean why did I choose him in the first place?—or why did I compare him and Michelangelo?

    Though in those backwoods of Ohio while plowing the cornfield or hunting rabbits with my musket I never gave old Velazquez a thought, here in Spain I had to come to terms with him. He is probably Spain’s greatest painter. I had already seen Michelangelo’s work in Italy before coming here and it had become my standard. So I made and still make comparisons all the time. When he was a boy Velazquez heard Michelangelo praised by Pacheco, his father-in-law and teacher, who considered him supreme. And in Pacheco’s book on painting, Vasari is cited all the time as THE authority; and Vasari thought Michelangelo was the greatest artist ever. Then too, Velazquez admired the work of Tintoretto, who was a Michelangelo enthusiast. And in Italy he saw the work of Bernini, who was obviously influenced by Michelangelo. Even El Greco, still painting when Velazquez was a boy, had copied works by Michelangelo while he was in Italy.
    Now isn’t it strange that Velazquez painted as though for him Michelangelo had never lived? There isn’t a trace of his style in Velazquez’s work—not a trace. And one of his few comments on record is that he didn’t care for Rafael’s paintings. He seems to have skirted around the entire Florentine Renaissance achievement (though not the Venetian, true).

    Now it could be that he “simply” grew up drawing from nature and developed his own style as though in isolation, experimenting with only the local style in fashion and Caravaggio’s lighting effects. He must have found Michelangelo’s style forced, “unnatural”, not true by comparison with the live models he was used to painting in Seville. In Italy he saw the Greek statues and recognized THERE the natural beauty he was after.

    But why force a comparison of two artists who are so different—apples and oranges? Well, precisely because their ideas about what is beautiful are so different, an Ohio boy, grown up with dirty feet and used to musing high up in his tree-house, needs to figure out where they meet. I guess that would never happen to a fellow living on the underside of the world. (Whoops! I see Silence the Elder lives in New York, not the Orient.)

    The best of those plaster casts have seams everywhere. The wise caster knew he would affect the surface by removing them.

  12. madsilence says:

    Interesting and I do see your point. I never thought to compare Velazquez and the Renaissance artists in this manner, but the comparison can be useful. Like a “compare and contrast” essay in art history class.

    To shed light on my ignorance, I’ve opened my copy of Paul Johnson’s book, Art: A New History. Here’s what Johnson says about Velazquez on page 353:

    “Though mythological painting was almost unknown in Spain, and dangerous, especially for a young man, the humbler kind of artist painted still lifes and what were called bodegones, low-life or everyday subjects, often combined with flowers, fruit and other objects useful to display virtuosity. Such pieces came low down in the hierarchy of subjects but they were popular and sometimes attracted the notice of the great. Between the ages of 18 and 21, Velazquez painted a series of masterworks in the bodegone manner.”

    Johnson goes on to state that Velazquez married the bodegone apparatus to higher subject matter, pushing a humble tradition, in which he excelled, right to the center of Spanish art.

    I’m not familiar with the “bodegones” style but Johnson seems to be saying that Velazquez purposely chose to pursue this genre style because of its popularity. Although why “mythological painting” should be “dangerous, especially for a young man,” is not clear to me.

    Thanks again for the intelligent dialogue. I trust you realize I was teasing about kvetching in Ohio.

    MadSilence the Senior

  13. 100swallows says:

    Madsilence: Thanks for your comments. Bodegon to this day is the Spanish for still-life. But in Velazquez’s time the genre included poor people. Yes, the best of his first works are really memorable. Check out the Old Water-Seller or another one of an old woman pouching eggs. Diego was very successful in Seville after leaving his father-in-law’s atelier. In the few years he painted there he earned enough not only to buy his own house but another one to rent out. I suppose Johnson thought mythological paintings were “dangerous” because of the Inquisition.
    Sure I knew you were teasing. I guess I did work the Ohio kid a bit hard in my reply. Actually, I saw a real Velazquez and a great Greco at the Toledo Art Museum when I was only about twelve.

  14. erikatakacs says:

    I just saw my favourite sculpture at the Art Gallery of Ontario again, and the depiction of Corpus is very similar to this painting. http://www.ago.net/assets/images/554/102750.jpg

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: How nice to hear from you again! So many of these posts have keen comments of yours and have made us all think twice or more about the paintings.

      Velazquez’s father-in-law and teacher had a theory that Christ was crucified with four nails, not three—a point that seems so unimportant today. He argues the case in his History of Art.
      Maybe he convinced his son-in-law but in any case Velázquez must have decided on the four nails because he didn’t like the way the straightened feet seemed to lengthen the legs so much, as in your Christ. Of course yours is sculpture, which makes a big difference.

      Though his Christ stands on a wooden support, Velázquez still wanted to give His hips and legs a slight unbalance for variety, so He stands on his right leg and the left knee juts forward just a bit.

      I see you’ve been very busy making figures—and exhibiting them! I’m coming over to have a better look. Un saludo.

      • erikatakacs says:

        Happy New Year, dear Swallows! I have to come over more often too, maybe some of your knowledge will rub off me! I never get tired of art history and love your take on these distinguished men. Yes, I’ve been busy, but my load for this year is far lighter. I can do what I please, and that’s how I like it! Would you believe that the sculpture I posted is a Bernini? At least that’s what the experts have decided. It is so uncharacteristic of his style, so restrained and economical – hard to believe, isn’t it? Interesting facts about the nails, I have never paid attention to how many there were…

  15. erikatakacs says:

    And I have to agree with you, it is probably the most beautifully painted dead Christ…

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: So yours is by Bernini. In fact, one would think that if Velázquez had sculpted, his Christ would look similar. Bernini and Velázquez actually met in Rome, though it was late for either to be much influenced by the other.
      Did you ever read Ratzinger (before he was Pope Benedict) on religious art? Have a look.

      http://www.adoremus.org/0202artliturgy.html

      I think he would approve of these works. His idea was that Christian art should indeed show the Saviour, in apparent violation of the First Commandment, precisely because, according to Christian belief, God became man. The question is how to show Him. Eastern Christian art still uses icons and has never gone in the direction of realism. An icon encourages, precisely, a “fasting of the eyes”. Ideally it should lead one to a mystical knowledge of the mystery of the Encarnation, just as Plato’s earthly beauty makes one long for the “real thing” he knew in heaven and leads away from physical love. Ratzinger would prefer to go back to more symbolic, less realistic art, which only serves to keep the mind down here in the world. A sexy Mary Magdalene, even a curious, smiling Virgin Mary, do not do what they are supposed to. Anyway, these Christs we are considering do seem to satisfy those two requirements Ratzinger sets: they show God as a man and, by means of their quiet beauty, can well provoke meditation on the mysteries of the Faith.

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