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O Son of Man, perfected Humanity, in the uncreated light that never dies, my natural eyes fixed on your eyes, O Christ, my studious look submerged in you, Lord.
Manuel de Unamuno, The Velazquez Christ
Translated by William Thomas Little

You move me, Lord, it moves me to see you nailed to a cross and ridiculed, it moves me to see your badly hurt body, your humiliation and your death move me.
Fernando de Herrera, 16th Century Spain
Quoted by Susan Verdi Webster, Art and Ritual in Golden Age Spain: Sevillian Confraternities and the Processional Sculpture of Holy Week

The Spanish Tradition

Velazquez combined erudition with a gift to reformulate standard forms into new and powerful presentations.

In Christ on the Cross, Velazquez adopted the basic form of the painted solitary crucifix as determined by his teacher and father in law, Francisco Pacheco (1564 - 1644).

solitary crucifix Pacheco

Christ on the Cross (1614) Francisco Pacheco.

Pacheco was one of the first Spanish art theorists. His writings address Christian iconography and painting techniques. He prescribes set elements for common works of religious art, such as the use of four nails instead of three in the nailing of Christ to the cross and an accurate representation of the moon in paintings of The Immaculate Conception. As a painter, he also polychromed wooden sculptures like the famous Christ of Clemency by Juan Martinez Montanes, known as ’el dios de la madera’ (the god of wood).

Pacheco’s painting in 1614 shows the form of an erect Christ with both feet nailed to a foot rest on the cross against a dark background. The title reflects John’s Gospel in which the sentence is written in three languages instead of the abbreviation INRI. The aureole appears a metal halo, perhaps copied from a small bronze crucifix by Donatello. The basic form was followed by Velazquez and other painters, including Alonso Cano, Francisco de Zurbaran, and Bartolome Murillo. Velazquez, unlike the other painters, was primarily a court painter and rarely painted religious themes.

Christ on the Cross is believed to have been commisioned by Jeronimo de Villanuevo (1594-1653) for the Benedictine convent of San Placido in Madrid as part of an act of penance. This convent was closely connected with the royal family. In the 1620s the convent was investigated by the Inquisition for reports of demonic possession, a phenomena that had spread through France at this time. As his family had founded the convent and the head sister had been his fiancee, Villanuevo was also investigated and initially found guilty and then cleared.

In the painting, Velazquez uses a planed or finished wood cross rather than the tree trunk used in similar paintings at this time. He goes a step further than his teacher in realism by showing knots on the cross piece and splits in the wood to the left of each nailed hand. The wood appears to be made of pine, based on the knots, which follows the scholarly opinion of the time of kind of wood used for the True cross. The shadows thrown on the wood appear as if the sun is midway between noon and sunset, which corresponds to the time of death of Christ.

The yellow gold aureole or nimbus serves to further set off the head and remind us of the divinity of Christ. Of the different forms of the crown of thorns, Velazquez depicts long piercing thorns. This fits within the devotion to the blood of Christ that is an essential feature of this painting.

Trying to determine the correct number of nails used at the crucifixion was an issue of importance to Pacheco, other members of his academy, and Catholic art theorists. More than whether the nails represented a symbolic meaning, such as the four virtues, the issue was one of historical accuracy and biblical truth. Pacheco determined that four nails were the correct number, with one nail in each foot.

His friend and scholar Francisco de Rioja’s confirms that Pacheco’s painting succeeds in " following in every respect what the ancient writers say. This is because he paints the cross with four arms and with the supedaneum on which the feet are nailed side by side. You can see the figure planted on it as if He were standing up; the face with majesty and decorum, without ugly twisting or discomposure, as is suitable to the sovereign greatness of Christ our Lord."

Pacheco concluded that the image of Christ is more dignified hanging straight down without sway or the awkward nailing seen in the vision by St. Bridget. This type of crucifix positions the dead Christ in the erect posture of a triumphant Christ. Later in the 17th century, Spanish painters would resume using the three nail crucifix, as no amount of study could convincingly resolve the issue of the number of nails.

Solitary Crucifix: Velazquez
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The Painted Solitary Crucifix: Velazquez

solitary crucifix Velazquez solitary crucifix Velazquez head solitary crucifix Velazquez feet
Christ on the Cross (1632), Velazquez, Museo de Prado, Madrid

Christ on the Cross by Velazquez is a deeply moving work. Velazquez depicts Christ with a body of classical proportions, representing the most perfect man, while blood drips from his wounds down his body and the wood of the cross. As a devotional painting, it invites silence and meditation.

After many years in the dark sacristy of a convent, it was briefly put on auction in Paris in the early 19th century by the wife of Manuel de Godoy, before returning to Spain and becoming part of the Prado. (1) Goya used the work as a model for his application painting Crucifixion to the Royal Academy. This and other works inspired Picasso and Dali. The painting is the central theme of one of the great works of 20th century Spanish literature, The Velazquez Christ by Manuel de Unamuno.

In Christ on the Cross one of the striking aspects is that half the face of Christ is veiled by his hair. On one level, this depicts the mystery of the incarnation and provides a respectful veil to death. A review of the observations by various scholars sheds further light on the painting.

Earlier this year, the Museum del Prado website provided a curious explanation for this device: "Popular culture believes that Velazquez could not copy the expression on the right side of Christ's face, and therefore opted to cover the left [right] side with his falling hair instead."

Velazquez, however, had no problem depicting Christ’s face in Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul. Also, as if to refute this statement, he shows the right profile of Christ in his Coronation of the Virgin, but hides the left side instead. Another view is provided by Nina Mallory, who views the device as a reference to the previous suffering of Christ:

The pathos of this Christ figure is given special poignancy by a most unusual feature, the hair that falls forward under the crown of thorns to hide half of Christ’s face. The disarray suggested by the detail disrupts the otherwise perfect composure of the dead Christ, recalling the cruelty and mockery suffered by the Saviour throughout his Passion.(2)
Her observation provides a concrete reference to the statement by the 19th century biographer Carl Justi, "The effect of this half veiling, although rather unconsciously felt than understood, is irresistible." (2)

As a God, the face is half hidden, the hair serving a similar purpose to speculations about clouds by Hubert Damisch: "We cannot contemplate the face of Beauty any more than the face of God, in which it participates. We can only glimpse it through a cloud, as one can also recognize its reflection in sensible human beings." (4)

However, another look is that the painting is also leading the viewer into the next world. As his earthly life is over, Christ is again a true spirit. John Drury explains the result as follows, "painters, if they are to be ’god’s spies,‘; have to go a good way further than theologians down the ethical road of incarnation, with the silent renunciations, the obedient humility and the love for the world of mortal appearances which it demands, if they are to make the mystery of things visible." (5)

Whether looking back through the life of Christ or forward to his place next to God the Father and the Holy Spirit, the veiled hair provides that power to move promoted by the sixteenth century Catholic art theorists and also encourages reflection.

No one is quite sure where the source of the hair as veil came from. Perhaps Velazquez simply imagined the device. It is also possible that he witnessed this effect in one of the theatrical passion plays of the period.

Some scholars have noted a similarity between the Velazquez Christ and the Christ of Clemency, a famous sculptured crucifix, completed around 1603 by Juan Martinez Montanes and polychromed by Pacheco (only artists were licensed to polychrome these wood figures). The sculpture is considered to have contributed to the "quietude and in the character of the head" of the Velazquez Christ on the Cross.(6) One can easily imagine this face in shadows that also could have been an inspiration for the veiled affect of the hair.

Unlike Christ on the Cross, the Montanes Christ is still alive, as witnessed by the open glass eyes and the absence of a wound in the side. The patron, Mateo Vazquez de Leca, had specified that Christ appear

to be alive, before He had died, with the head inclined towards the right side, looking to any person who might be praying at the foot of the crucifix, as if Christ himself were speaking to him and reproaching him because what He is suffering is for the person who is praying; and therefore the eyes and face must have a rather severe expression, and the eyes must be completely open. (7)

His instruction to provide a direct connection with the viewer prompts an interesting question on the difference in devotional effect between a Christ still alive on the cross with eyes open and one who appears dead. Is a believer more likely to sense a connection with the eyes of Christ and be moved to respond? The San Domino crucifix that spoke to St. Francis is a triumphant Christ with eyes open. Is one more likely to fall into a silent meditation on the presence of the dead Christ and be moved by spiritual feelings? Is one form more appropriate in a church and another better served in a cloistered area? At what point does just the idea of the image sit within one’s mind? This must be different by person and moment. In either case, the viewer is potentially drawn into any number of devotional questions regarding the nature of Christ.

Another difference is one of sculpture versus painting. Pacheco writes, "Sculpture has existence and painting has appearance." (8) By this he observed that with painting, the artist could specify exactly what view he wanted the viewer to see. With sculpture, this control did not exist. One could walk around and look from different angles. Curiously, unlike the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Western tradition of sacred objects has far preferred the three dimensional figure to a two-dimensional painting.(9) However, with Velazquez, showing Christ at this moment in this way precisely sets in motion the experience of the viewer to be moved towards an emotional connection and spiritual reflection.

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  1. According to Jose Lopez-Rey, Velazquez, The Artist as a Maker: with a catalogue raisonne of his extant works (Lausanne: Bibliotheque des Arts, 1979) 336, the work was sold to the Spanish Chief Minister Manuel de Godoy, the Prince of Peace (for the second Treaty of Basil with French revolutionary army, 1795) and favorite of the queen, around 1804. The convent had earlier refused to sell the work to a traveling Frenchman, Frederic Quillet for 20,000 francs. During the early 1800s a painted strip with a serpent and the skull and bones was attached to the bottom of the painting. In 1826, Godoy’s wife, the Countess of Chinchon, who retained the painting after her husband was forced to leave Spain, took the painting to Paris in order to sell it. Observers there reported that the painting had darkened considerably. Never sold, at the death of the countess in 1828, the painting was inherited by her brother-in-law, the Duke of San Fernando, who presented the work to King Fernando VII, who in turn gave it to the Prado. In its present location, the painting is a rare religious work in a gallery filled with secular paintings, mostly court portraits, by Velazquez. [Return]
  2. Nina Ayala Mallory, El Greco to Murillo: Spanish Painting in the Golden Age, 1556-1700 (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) 56.[Return]
  3. Justi, Carl. Diego Velazquez and His Times. A.H. Keane, rev. ed. (London: H. Grevel & Co., 1889), 238. [Return]
  4. Hubert Damisch, A Theory Of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting. Trans. Janet Lloyd (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 55[Return]
  5. John Drury. Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and their Meanings (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1999), 180.[Return]
  6. Beatrice Gilman Proske, Juan Martinez Montanes: Sevillian Sculptor (New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1967), 40. [Return]
  7. Proske, 40. The story is that he saw a woman walking down the street during the festival of Corpus Cristi. When he asked to see her face, she removed her veil and revealed a skeleton. From then on, this canon of the cathedral in Seville became increasingly pious. [Return]
  8. Proske, 57. According to a famous story, when Montanes saw one of his sculptures of Christ carried in a procession, he ran after it with tears streaming down his face, convinced his own creation had become real. [Return]
  9. Mary Lee Nolan and Sidney Nolan, Christian Pilgrimage in Modern Western Europe (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina., 1989), 184. Of 3200 miracle working objects identified in the West, Nolan found 74% of these were three dimensional.[Return]

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