KONRAD von Soest
(active 1394-1422 in Westphalie)

The Crucifixion

1404 or 1414
Tempera on wood, 158 x 267 cm (without the frame)
Parish church, Bad Wildungen

In its own period the work reproduced here (the central panel of the Wildungen Altarpiece) was notable for its huge dimensions.

The crosses of Christ and the two thieves stand before a golden background in a rather arid landscape. In the rear the horizon is closed by the dark silhouette of bushes. Christ's long, thin body, practically boneless, as if echoing the curve of the frame, diverges from the vertical beam of the cross.

The stage of Golgotha is populated by smaller groups of people. In the foreground three holy women (the three Maries) surround the figure of the Virgin, who has collapsed. They are not crushed by savage despair, but rather seized with gentle, languid sorrow. Indeed, the whole representation is charac- terized by a soft, lyrical mood rather than by dramatic qualities, the only exception being St John, who, standing behind the Maries, raises his hands passionately. But his figure remains isolated and his lamentations do not elicit an echo from any of the other characters. On the right, Roman officers dressed in the gorgeous and bizarre apparel of medieval knights are talking about the crucifixion as an event that took place in the recent past but not in the present. They pay attention to one another rather than to Christ. Pilate wears a crown and holds a long staff, and gives special stress to his words by pointing upwards with his forefinger, as he tries to convince the knight in a red cloak about the divinity of the crucified Man. Holding an inscribed scroll in his lifted right hand, the centurion with the red helmet is similarly attempting to convince the nobleman beside him. As far as the composition is concerned the scroll inscribed with the words "He was the Son of God indeed" provides an equilibrium with the two figures on the other side of the cross. They are Longinus and his page, who, with an elegant gesture, directs the spear of the blind old man to Christ's chest. Konrad von Soest did not emphasize the dramatic element in this instance either, since the figure of Longinus is already surrounded by an aura of conversion. (According to the legend he was converted only after the stab of the lance.) Their figures are echoed by two others who are just arriving on the left-hand edge of the picture. While they were just taking a walk, the two men seem to have been stopped by the sight of the three crosses and have diverted their talk from its original subject. Their figures are meant to point out that such scenes were everyday occurrences; for them the crucifixion of Christ and the thieves is nothing but one of the series of executions that took place every day in the Roman Empire. A similar role is given to the three inquisitive men on the right-hand edge of the composition. The figure of the peasant holding an axe is particularly fascinating. He is a simple man afraid of dying, his features seem to reflect those of the unrepentant thief.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 12 minutes):
Gregorian chants