Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John

Simone Martini (c. 1284–1344) and studio
Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and Saint John, 1340
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
17 1/2 x 7 15/16 in. (44.5 x 20.2 cm)
The Phillips Family Collection

Location: Enamels Room

An exquisite gold-ground painting by Simone Martini (c. 1284–1344) and his assistants is on view in the Enamels Room, thanks to a long-term loan by the Phillips Family Collection. Visitors can experience this masterpiece alongside the Frick’s own Temptation of Christ on the Mountain by Duccio di Buonsegna, who, along with Simone, was one of the founders of the Sienese school of painting.

Born around 1284, Simone was influenced by both the elegant narrative style of Duccio and the Florentine naturalism exemplified by Cimabue. Early in his career he focused on large-scale public commissions in fresco and painted altarpieces, such as his famous Annunciation, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. In the late 1330s, Simone moved to the papal capital at Avignon, where he produced small-scale private commissions for wealthy members of the papal court until his death in 1344.

Christ on the Cross most likely dates to Simone’s Avignon period, as it is characteristic of the jewel-like devotional paintings he created late in his career. The diminutive panel — in the shape of a slender, pointed Gothic arch — depicts the Crucifixion, witnessed by Christ’s mother, Mary, and St. John the Evangelist. Simone has imbued this seemingly simple picture with profound symbolism. Christ’s cross is depicted as an actual tree, alluding to both the Tree of Knowledge and also to the Tree of Life, the latter traditionally believed to be the source of wood used to build Christ’s cross. The skull at the foot of cross suggests themes of death and salvation, and the rivulets of Christ’s blood, flowing over the skull, serve as a metaphor for the belief that Christ’s blood conquers mortality. Simone’s attention to symbolism is matched by a delicate mastery of line and sensitivity to expression, as seen in the grief-stricken figure of Mary, who looks up at Christ, and in St. John the Evangelist, who pensively contemplates the skull below. 

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