Aesthetic Analysis

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triptych of the descent from the cross (1518-23), gérard david

Artist: Gérard David (1460-1523)

Technique: Oil on oak panels

Dimensions: 204 x 125 (width of the wings: 55 cm)

Year: 1518-1523

Location of Creation: Bruges

Current Location: Museu de Arte Sacra do Funchal, Portugal

Movements: Early Flemish Painting

Theme: Christian

Subject: Biblical

painting summary

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general description

The box like wooden structure showcases a large biblical scene; when open the triptych reveals a group of figures (seven men and three women, two on each of the side panels and six on the central panel) surrounded by a neutral arid landscape and city is in the background; when closed, the panels show, as is customary in grisaille, a figure and a landscape, one on each side.

Depiction of the Descent of the Cross, the biblical scene described in the New Testament; three Ephesians remove the nails that attached Christ to the cross: Nicodemus, at the top, behind the cross is pulling the nail from Jesus’s right hand with nails, Joseph from Arimathea, on a ladder at the right holding His torso, while Peter, on the floor at the left, holds His legs; Virgin Mary, on Peter’s side, awaits for the descent of the body of her son, while Mary Magdalen kneels with her hand in a sign of adoration, at the other side; the secondary lateral panels, shows the patrons, (probably) Jorge Lomelino and Maria Adão presented by Saint James the Greater and Saint Bernardine of Siene, at the left and at the right, respectively. On the reverse side of each panel (respectively), there’s the representation of Saint James the Less in episcopal clothing, holding a carding, and a representation of Santa Lucia (patron of the blind), in a grey silver palette.

A painting of great importance to the Island of Madeira, being a fine example of the work of one of the greatest Flemish artists, and the last one who carried their traditions, Gerard David. This points to the rich international market of art at the beginning of the 16th century.

Commissioned, probably by Jorge Lomelina for the Franciscan convent of Our Lady of Piety in Santa Cruz (built by Jorge Lomelina, around 1527, now gone), in the last years of the artist’s life, in 1518, the triptych (a three-panel painting) was later concluded by his disciples in 1527, in the netherlandish city of Bruges (where his workshop operated from).

content analysis

Emotions of Grief, Sadness, Sorrow, Devotion and Despair: the emotions of grief and sorrow resonate throughout the painting in the faces of all the characters, and in the hearts of the viewer; they observe the dead body of Jesus with sorrow and grave sadness; Mary Magdalene kneels with her hands in sign of prayer, interceding in Christ’s behalf and evoking emotions of devotion and despair.

Throughout the painting various symbolisms are used to describe the scene and add references to the viewer;

Saint James the Greater: holds a staff on his left hand and hat hanging (probably by a thread) on his back, right behind his neck (symbolic of the pilgrim).

Saint Bernardine of Siena: wears a monogram “IHC” (first three letters of the word “Jesus” in Greek) with rays emanating from it (devotion to the “Holy Name of Jesus”) that he is holding.

Skull and Bones: on the left side of the floor in the main panel, the skull and the bones are symbolic not only of death and the earthly, acting as a reminder of its inevitable outcome for Man, but also the the permanence beyond death, as bones are the last remains of the body to decay, as the memory of Christ would remain in people’s lives.

Colour is used with its different associations to evoke specific symbols and associations:

Red and Violence: hues of red predominant in the Ephesians clothes (Nicodemus in the darkest tones, Joseph and Peter in the same bright red) represent the violence and anguish of the tragedy that has surpassed;

Green and Hope: the green present in the dark hue of Mary Magdalene’s Clothing, and in the bright hue of Saint James the Great’s clothing, represents hope, and acts as an anticipation of what is yet to come (the resurrection);

Black and Mourning: black, as the colour of mourners and sorrow, is worn by the Virgin Mary and the patrons.

White Light and the Sacred: used by Jesus in the cloth wrapped around his body, it symbolizes the purity of His essence.

Darkness and Sobriety Versus the Lightness of the Sky: dark clothing and mood is prevalent in the figures and in the overall front scene, reflecting the somber and sad mood of the moment; the bright sky in the background creates a contrasting dramatic effect.

Light and Holiness: the luminosity of the skin of three main characters (Jesus, Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene) acts as symbol of Sacredness and Holiness, making them stand out visually as the central figures of the composition, but also emotionally and spiritually as beacons and examples of the Light of God; Jesus shines the lighter.

Metaphorically, the time of transition between day and night (or night and day), is a time of change, of transition and transformation; reflects the ‘miraculous’ side of nature, the passing of time, and the eternal cycles of life to which man belongs to. The soft pastel tones of a setting or rising sun, also add to the overall mood of the scene, to a melancholic sense of  grief.

The grief and sorrow felt when Christ sacrificed himself for humankind, with no hope for his return. A popular imagery utilized to make the viewer reflect on his sins, and make him seek redemption. 

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Strong Composition: full of tension lines (four oblique lines across the figures heads) and strong points (intersections of the lines in Jesus’s right hand, heart and knees).

Perspective: perspective used in the construction of the city in the background with the aim of making it more realistic.

Sober and Dark Colour Palette: combination of darker tones in the clothing of the figures, and neutral colors in the background.

Influences of Jan van Eyck and Italian Art: construction of the scenes (landscape/townscape and detailing of objects and faces) and assimilation of the period’s Italian painting style (more general storytelling).

Change in methods: streamlining of the works at the workshop to support the high demand for his works (local and abroad), and subtle adjustments of the painting theme to fit the changing tastes of his clients.

Realism: although it may not fully achieve anatomical precision in his (more evident in the exposed limbs of Christ and Nicodemus), it reflects the artists attempt at capturing reality in a realistic manner, through the intricate treatment of the clothing, landscape and cityscape’s details (behind the main scene).

Transitional Figure: introduction of new themes and new workshop methods of producing paintings, in an era of transition between Medieval times and North Renaissance (he played a crucial role in reinvigorating the netherlandish art – different from Italian Renaissance).

  1. There is a sister painting at The MET, by the same artist: The Crucifixion, ca. 1495. Four of its five figures are the same, in the same clothing, and are almost in the same positions. Both paintings even have the same treatment of color, and present a similar backdrop.

related works

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Title: The Descent from the Cross
Date: 1438
Medium: Oil on panel
Size: 220 x 262 cm
Location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Artist: Giotto di Bondone
Title: The Crucifixion
Date: 1304-1306
Medium: Tempera on panel
Size: 200 x 185 cm
Location: Cappella degli Scrovegni all’Arena, Padua, Italy

Artist: Duccio di Buoninsegna
Title: Crucifixion triptych
Date: c. 1310
Size: 48 x 20 cm | 53 x 28 cm | 48 x 20 cm
Medium: Gold and tempera on panel
Location: Società di Esecutori di Pie Disposizioni, Rome, Italy

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