The two paintings I chose to compare are The Virgin and Child by Rogier van der Weyden (1406, Netherlandish; gallery room 207) and The Crucifixion by Francisco de Zurbaran (1627, Spanish; gallery room 215). These two paintings focus on Jesus Christ, his humanity and his divinity. I chose them because they represent Jesus’ fragile humanity through his infancy and death. These paintings struck me as different from the other religious art I had seen because it stresses humanity without sacrificing divinity.
Weyden illustrates the beauty of humanity with a poignant portrait of The Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus as an infant. The sheer tenderness of this most simple and necessary bonding between the mother and the child is captured in this painting. It is a feeling that only a mother can understand but it is capable of touching everybody because everybody plays at least one of these roles throughout their lifetime. The beauty and simplicity of human nature is also contrasted with the jewels that adorn Mary’s robe and the velvet drape behind her. It seems to me that it implies divinity though one could also interpret that as something else. Although this was a painting for private devotion and intended to capture a beautiful moment, one can also see the dark side of human nature in this painting.
Exotic and expensive jewels surround Mary and Jesus. But why jewels? Why were jewels chosen to represent the divine? Jesus spoke against material riches saying that only those rich in spirit can enter the kingdom of Heaven. Jewels can also be interpreted as money and that is of course a necessary evil. If money is the root of all evil and human nature by definition is imperfect and tends to stray towards evil, then this painting takes on a whole new meaning to me. This means that nobody, even Jesus, can be perfect if he is limited to being a mortal human being. To me, the painting goes much deeper than what is actually presented.
Whether he intended to or not, Weyden created a statement of God enjoying the beauty of his humanity but also dealing with the ugliness that comes along. The jewels represent humanity because even though they are beautiful and marvelous on the outside, beneath they cannot escape the evil that is. For the jewels it is the greed and the bloodshed and everything else money represents that seems to stain it’s beauty. For man, it is the amazing and marvelous things we can create that are also stained with the atrocities that we are capable of.
Obviously there is more to this painting than meets the eye but there is something interesting in the way the two are positioned. Mary, with her breast exposed preparing to feed her son means that Jesus is still in his infancy. Infants are very helpless and vulnerable, but Jesus appears to be sitting upright, albeit with support. The look in his eyes gives a feeling of intelligence and wisdom while at the same time they are still doe-eyed and innocent. However, the most interesting point is the position of the infant’s arms. He sits upright with his hands almost offering a blessing. A similar pose can be seen in Rembrandt’s Christ Healing the Sick.
The other painting that captured my thoughts was one by Francisco de Zurbaran. Even though it was painted over a century later in a different part of Europe, the two paintings seem to intertwine to deliver a strong message. This painting, which is considered Zurbaran’s lost masterpiece, is a massive painting designed originally for a church, the church of Dominican of San Pablo el Real in Seville. It dwarfs Weyden’s tiny Virgin and Child. These seemingly opposite paintings oddly enough have so many similarities. They both portray Jesus in fragile states yet this differs from the first because it deals with Christ’s death. The picture is a somber one with depth that is so life like, it was often mistaken for sculpture when viewed from far away.
It portrays Jesus hanging from the cross. He is in the classic position with nails driven through his palms. There are no other objects in the background; it is just Jesus, his cross and a mysterious source of light. According to the background history of the painting, the light suggests divinity. Both paintings have symbols for divinity but are radically contrasted at the same time. Christ is left on the cross, alone and tortured whereas the first is the comfort of infancy. The Crucifixion, in all its great size and beauty reflects what a huge, momentous event Jesus’ death really was.
The Crucifixion does contrast the first painting because instead of intricate poses and fine jewels, it is just simply death. The painting is so good because it is something so simple and raw that it is beyond words. No words can capture the sorrow and the pain of that very moment like Zubrbaran can with his brush. It stands profound and intimidating. It draws upon our experience and our knowledge of death. We are there, we are seeing the fault and the evil of humanity. “We have killed our creator,” Zurbaran seems to say. He seems to be screaming it in your ear while at the same time we are enveloped by a deafening silence. It is enough to put you in awe of what humanity is. It seems to put us in the same state of mind early man must have been in when looking upon the dark, infinite sky above.
The light source is another interesting and debatable point. It seems to bring a source of comfort, if any could be found. It is a single light in a presumably infinite dark and it illuminates the empty corpse of God. If life is death and life is beautiful, it seems that the death of the Lord can be seen as a beautiful thing. God came to live amongst his creation, to teach and to spread the word. In his death however, he created something of much more impact than he ever accomplished in his own lifetime. That leads me in to another point. In his death, that single light source could be just the start, a spark or a flame that would spread like wildfire, spreading the love of God everywhere. It could be represented as not only the death of Christ, but the birth of Christianity.
In conclusion, these two paintings seem to go hand in hand. They are completely opposite paintings that tie into each other and almost seem to tell a story. Of course it could be argued that these two paintings have nothing at all in common except for the subject. But it doesn’t really matter what part of the world they are from or what period in history they lived in. What matters is that they saw something, felt something so strong and so profound that they captured it to be acknowledged by all.
Courtney from Study Moose
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