Paolo da Visso (active 1431-1482)
This intimate panel painting of the Crucifixion, with its unusual iconography, has been at the centre of scholarly debate since its first appearance in an early 20th century publication. It has since been attributed to Paolo da Visso, a 15th century painter from the Central Italian region of Le Marche.
Silhouetted against an ornate golden background, the crucified Christ bows his head down to the scene below. The agony of his crucifixion is intensified through the intense red blood that pours from his wounds. Located below the Cross is an intimate scene between the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. Kneeling at the foot of the Cross, Saint John is portrayed a beardless and graceful young man with tears elegantly rolling down his cheek, and delicate hands in prayer. In this profound scene, as John weeps, Mary reaches to hold the Saint’s hand and brings her coat protectively around him. Behind this central image, kneeling and embracing the foot of the Cross is Saint Francis (c.1182-1226) dressed in the traditional Franciscan brown habit fastened with a white rope, looking upwards to Christ. The golden background includes intricate punchwork forming foliage and vegetal patterns, which glimmer and change under the reflection of light upon the surface. Encircling the outline of the painted of the Crucifixion and the landscape, the artist has created a punchwork border of cusped arches to provide a sense of separation between the two mediums. This detailed technique is also found in the halos of the saints. The juxtaposition of the painted surface and gold with its intricate details provides a dazzling effect for the viewer. Rather than form part of a public altarpiece, this painting was meant to be handled as a devotional object. This is suggested by its small scale and its reverse painted in imitation of porphyry. The unique presence of the inscription above the Virgin’s head further emphasises that it was designed to be viewed up close.
A tool for contemplation, the iconography of this panel adds complexity to the otherwise straightforward scene, which depicts the final moment before the death of Christ. Kneeling and embracing the foot of the Cross is Saint Francis of Assisi dressed in the traditional Franciscan brown habit fastened with a white rope, looking towards Christ. Although out of place, the presence of Francis at the foot of the cross is not unusual in Italian art of this period, which often merges the story of the saint’s life with the story of Christ’s passion in order to emphasise his direct spiritual authority. The viewers of this moment are invited to witness this union, which was given a special role in Dominican and Franciscan mysticism in the 14th and 15th centuries.