Art – The cross of Christ

In the Autumn 2013 my wife and I travelled to Spain, a dream vacation where we took in the architecture and art. One of our final stops was the town of Málaga, a port city on southern Spain’s Costa del Sol, known for its high-rise hotels and resorts jutting up from yellow sand beaches. It’s also the birth place of the great Spanish painter Pablo Picasso. My main interest in Spain was historic Spanish painting. In my opinion they are the best painters in history. Much of my focus when visiting galleries and museums was on these artists. To my surprise, while visiting the Carmen Thyssen Museum, I was bowled over by a Flemish Baroque artist named Anthony van Dyck.

In the final viewing room I found myself confronted by a painting of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ painted around 1660.  The painting is a stark brown and grey work and the body of Christ is painted in pale blueish and grey skin tones. The top left corner depicts a break in the dark clouds slightly illuminating the atmosphere with divine light, the same light crowns Christ’s forehead. This painting is so different to any master painting that I’ve seen and not what one would expect from a crucifixion scene. All stages of the creation of the painting are visible: the brown toned underpainting including the rudimentary initial lines. Under the feet of Christ the monochromatic underpainting is visible, the torso of Christ is masterfully developed and complete while his face and contorted hands are sketched and dabbed with tentative tones of flesh colours. 

Van Dyck was an artist and a teacher and this particular painting was used as a tool to teach students the process of painting. It would have remained in the artist’s workshop for students to replicate and was called a ‘modello’ or model. It would have been seen as invaluable; within a single image lies a material treatise on academic painting. A student could examine this artwork and understand how to paint. Within this artwork lies the theories of painting, the elements of art and principals of design. Within this painting are the technical steps to paint a masterpiece. The secrets of a great artist revealed for the discerning eye to see.

Van Dyck could have chosen any subject matter to teach his students but subject matter matters. We look to the cross of Christ, like a painting student in Van Dyck’s workshop, and all of existence unravels. Within the image of the crucifixion there is the worst kind of death as well as abundance in life, macabre violence and absolute peace, injustice and forgiveness, broken sin and holy purity. God revealed His divine plan for humanity in the image of the cross, He demonstrated His unconditional love though the crucifixion of His son. What was once a layered mystery has been made known.


By Nathan Janse van Vuuren