HEEMSKERCK, Maerten van
(b. 1498, Heemskerck, d. 1574, Haarlem)

The Crucifixion

Oil on panel, 334 x 270 cm
Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent

The Crucifixion by Maerten van Heemskerck comes from the convent of the Rich Clares in Ghent. Various aspects of the Passion have been brought together here in one scene. The crucified Christ hangs high above the crowd, between the good and the bad murderers. One soldier raises up a sponge soaked in vinegar to quench Jesus thirst, while another looks up in awe at the dying man. In the right foreground soldiers cast dice for Jesus clothes. On the left we see Mary swoon in the arms of the apostle John. At the foot of the cross, Mary Magdalene is overcome with grief as she gazes up at the Messiah. The donor, wearing a priests surplice, kneels in the foreground on the left. His identity is not known. The beautifully executed horses in the background are not based on nature studies but on sketches Maerten van Heemskerck made of classical sculptures when he visited Italy from 1532 to 1535.

This work illustrates the influence exerted in the Low Countries by the Italian Renaissance. A variety of artists made the journey to Italy in the 16th century, where they absorbed new artistic ideas. Their work brought an entirely new approach to religious painting compared to the pious, inward-looking art of the 15th century. Novel elements included brilliant compositions and above all the heightened attention to the human body - a focus that led to frequent exaggeration.

Many of the paintings produced by the Haarlem artist Maerten van Heemskerck, who spent the years 1532-35 in Italy, stand out for their somewhat contrived poses and their element of theatricality. His Crucifixion, with its atmosphere of torment, heightened by the use of colour is a striking example of the Mannerist approach.

The painting is signed and dated bottom left: M. HEMSKERCK /fecit/ 1543.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 22 minutes):
Heinrich Schütz: Die sieben Worte am Kreuz SWV 478