In 1627, Francisco de Zurbaran painted a crucifixion.
He could paint pretty fast. According to one account, he did 21 paintings in eight months. He painted mostly religious scenes. One of those paintings hung in the Monastery of San Pablo el Real. It hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago now. It is a crucifixion. It’s stark. There is only one figure, Jesus, hanging on a cross. There is little blood. The rest of the painting is black.
In a catalog description of the painting, Jeannine Baticle writes,
Unlike crucifixions in the Italian tradition, and according to the recommendation of Pacheco, here Christ is represented not in collapse but with the legs still straight, each foot firmly nailed, and with the full weight of the lifeless body supported by the outstretched arms. More than realism, one can speak here of surrealism, for Zurbaran shows an idealized representation of the crucified Christ, in no way seeking to display the horror and physical degradation of a tortured body.
A couple weekends ago I spent some time staring at this painting. I’ve been thinking about it since. Zurbaran’s work was constrained by the commission to paint just Christ. It was constrained by art and theology. But his his vision wasn’t constrained. In this painting of death there is life. The black paint took time to layer on the canvas. But that black paint creates a black space around the cross and around Christ that lets us, makes us, see. And the absence of blood, of beating, takes away the horrification. We are left to consider the death.
During Easter week, we all are painting crucifixes. Some cartoons. Some caricatures. Some still-life. We are filling in details, people watching, implications, bunnies. But I think I don’t want to paint a scene. I want to see Christ.