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Work The Carrying of the Cross

Department of Paintings: Italian painting

The Carrying of the Cross

© 2009 Musée du Louvre / Erich Lessing

Paintings
Italian painting

Author(s):
Martine Depagniat, Dominique Thiébaut

This wing of a small, double-sided quadriptych was painted for a member of the Orsini family; the family coat of arms features on the back of the panel in the Louvre. The other wings of the portable retable are shared among museums in Berlin (The Entombment, sawn through the edge) and Antwerp (The Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross, now separated from The Virgin and The Angel of the Annunciation, which originally appeared on the reverse sides).

A scene from the Passion

Simone Martini chose to depict the scene where Christ is led by soldiers out of the city of Jerusalem to be crucified on Mount Calvary. Christ is surrounded by a large crowd accompanying him toward the hill: soldiers with their rhythmically alternating spears, Jews, and, to the left, the Virgin, violently pushed aside by a soldier and held by St. John. In the middle of the group of holy women, Mary Magdalene raises her arms heavenward in a pained gesture suffused with pathos. The procession describes a curve as it exits the city walls; certain figures already look ahead to the following scene, the Crucifixion.
The composition of The Carrying of the Cross is extremely dense and energetic; the bustling crowd seems to hem Jesus in on all sides. The dramatic effect is heightened by the use of inverted perspective and figures that are disproportionately large with respect to the architecture. The artist's sense of narrative is shown through realistic details and the strong characterization of certain figures: the vulgar faces of the executioners, the hook-nosed profile of the hooded old woman in blue, and the more reserved but no less intense expression of the Virgin, driven back in her rush towards her son, whose face is turned toward her.

Poetry and truth

The density of the scene is compensated for by the extraordinary elegance of line, the richness of the gold ornaments - such as the haloes or the cuirass of the soldier who threatens the Virgin - and above all the subtlety and refinement of the palette: the red of Mary Magdalene's robe echoed in that of Christ; the delicate orange of the executioner's garment which allows a glimpse of the blue mantle underneath. The atmosphere of the scene - where Martini blends poetry and truth, extreme refinement and the expression of the most intense pain - confers this work with an exceptional quality.

A private devotional retable

The Carrying of the Cross was the face of one of the wings of a small private devotional retable, painted on both sides. When the retable was opened, one could see the four scenes of Christ's Passion: The Carrying of the Cross (Louvre), The Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross (Antwerp), and the Entombment (Berlin). With the exception of the Louvre panel, which has remained intact, these wings have been sawn edgewise into two separate pieces: The Virgin and The Angel of the Annunciation originally appeared on the reverse sides of The Crucifixion and Descent from the Cross respectively. In all probability the wings folded concertina-fashion; only the reverses of the panels in the Louvre and Berlin (now lost) were visible.
This polyptych was no doubt painted for a member of the Orsini family (whose coat of arms appears on the reverse of The Carrying of the Cross), perhaps for Cardinal Napoleone Orsini, who might have commissioned the work from Martini before the Sienese master departed for the papal court of Avignon in 1336.

Technical description

  • Simone MARTINI (known in Sienna in1315 –Avignon, 1344)

    The Carrying of the Cross

    c. 1335

  • Panel

    H. 30 cm; W. 20.5 cm

  • Acquired 1834

    INV. 670 bis

  • Paintings

    Denon wing
    1st floor
    Salle des Sept-Mètres
    Room 4

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