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Art for Meditation - May 2018

Simone Martini0001

Simone Martini (Siena 1284 - Avignon 1344), The Ascent to Calvary, around 1335, tempera on wood, 30x20 cm, Paris, Louvre Museum


The ascent to Calvary was the verse of one of the compartments of a small polyptych for private devotion, painted on both sides. When it was open, four scenes from the Passion of Christ could be seen in succession, the ascent to Calvary (at the Louvre in Paris), the Crucifixion and the Descent from the Cross (at the Royal Museum in Antwerp) and the Deposition in the tomb (at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin). It was therefore a meditation on the mystery of the last moments of Jesus' life.

Simone Martini chose to represent the episode in which Christ is carried by soldiers outside the city of Jerusalem, the cross on their shoulders, to be crucified on Mount Golgotha. A large crowd gathers around Jesus, accompanying him on his ascent to Calvary: some soldiers, whose spears rhythm the composition, of the Jews and, on the left, the Virgin, pushed with violence by a soldier and supported by St. John. In the midst of the group of pious women, Mary Magdalene raises her arms to heaven in a pathetic gesture of pain. The procession describes a curve coming out of the city walls, some looks already tend towards the following scene, the Crucifixion, represented on another compartment of the same set (today in Antwerp).

The composition of the painting is extremely dense and full, a great agitation animates the crowd of the procession that seems to surround Jesus from all sides. This dramatic effect is reinforced by the calm of Jesus who, although condemned to death, maintains a great dignity: only his gaze is sad, because he turned his face towards the Virgin Mary and therefore sees the pain of his mother. The narrative sense of the author is translated into realistic details: the rude faces of the executioners, the profile with the crooked nose of the old woman with the blue dress, the pathetic gesture of Magdalene, the expression more contained, but not less intense, of the Virgin, rejected in her momentum towards her son, the two small children on the bottom right that perhaps do not understand what is going on ...

The dramatic power of the tablet, its oppressive atmosphere do not exclude a true poetry and refinement that translates into the extraordinary elegance of the lines, the richness of the golden ornaments, such as haloes or the armor of the soldier threatening the Virgin, and especially the preciousness and delicacy of the palette: such as the red of Mary Magdalen's habit, which is echoed by Christ's, or the delicate orange of the executioner's habit, such as the blue with the golden stars of the soldier's cloak behind him.

Here, then, is the scene that the evangelist Luke describes in chapter 23 (vv. 26-32) of his Gospel. Where would we have liked to be?  With Mary, with the soldiers, with the crowd, with the two children, with her disciples...?


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