(b. ca. 1335, Beaumetz-les-Loges, d. 1396, Dijon)

Christ on the Cross with a Praying Carthusian Monk

Tempera on wood, 56 x 45,6 cm
Museum of Art, Cleveland

The picture is one of the 26 panels that once adorned the cells of the Carthusian monastery at Champmol near Dijon. Two paintings of the series survived, their themes being identical: a Carthusian monk is praying below the cross of Christ. St John the Evangelist is standing behind him, wringing his hands in sorrow, his head falling to one side in the same way as Christ's head. On the other side of the cross, to the right of Christ, the holy women are supporting the fainting Virgin.

The picture is not a narrative of a biblical event (the monk's presence in the picture would be an obvious anachronism). It is intended to evoke the sufferings and death of Christ both for the person represented, and for the spectator. Indeed, the monk is the most emotional figure of the composition; there is some acquiescence and resignation in the pain of the others. To depict a human person, without the intermediary of a patron saint, on the same scale as the saints and so near to God the Redeemer, was a bold innovation. The painting is a characteristic example of a devotional picture almost devoid of iconographic constraints, its aim being to encourage the prayers, meditations and piety of the Christian, and to enhance his self identification with the sufferings of Christ. The inmates of the monastery could identify themselves with the monk in the picture, just as the monumental Calvary by Claus Sluter in the middle of the cloister may have provided them with a profound experience every day.

The scene takes place on a narrow stage in front of a patterned gold background. The groups on either side of the cross are linked by rich draperies to form balanced masses. The generous folds of the draperies are arranged in rhythmical curves which obscure the anatomical structure of the figures; even the posture of the monk is not apparent. The small mound of earth into which the foot of the cross is inserted is softly moulded too, almost as if it were made of a textile material. This use of space, defined within pliable confines, which seem to have been modelled and folded by the artist, is a typical feature of the International Gothic style.

Nor do the figures stand in front of a natural background; it looks more like fabric stretched to form a backcloth. Its connection with the composition is achieved by the symbolic relevance of its pattern, a tree which is rooted in the soil of the hill of Calvary and also represents the trees of life and of knowledge. This stylized ornament fills up the empty surfaces evenly. The whole of the picture is enclosed by wide arches with vigorous lines that blend into one another: the contours of the figures, the folds of the garments and the blood flowing from the body of Christ. The lines are flexible and avoid breaks and clashes (as can be observed, for example, at the foliate ornament around the monk's arm).

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.