Lombardy 1427 /1430 – Brescia 1515/1516
The three crosses
[I tre crocifissi]
tempera and gold on wood panel
68.5 (h) x 38.8 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giacamo Carrara 1796
Vincenzo Foppa’s extraordinary depiction of Christ’s Crucifixion is his first signed painting among only a handful of works to survive from his early career. Bridging the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the panel follows conventions for the production of private devotional panels in late Medieval Italy, while encapsulating the key achievements of fifteenth-century painting. The sensitive manipulation of colour, subtle gradation in shading, keen understanding of light and its effect, meticulous spatial construction and expression of profound emotion in this work demonstrate why Foppa was celebrated by his contemporaries as one of the greatest artists of his time.
The scene is framed by a round arch that in decoration and exquisite proportion demonstrates Foppa’s adaptation of Classical art and architecture. The artist’s guidelines scored into the panel are evidence of the precision with which he planned the arch and engineered the perspectival recession. Foppa draws the viewer into the scene through this arch via a paved forecourt bordered by a carved marble parapet bearing the artist’s name, ‘Vincencius Brixiensis’[Vincent of Brescia], and the date (although incomplete lettering makes an accurate reading of the year difficult).
The viewer enters the middle ground through a break in the parapet, there to stand at the foot of Christ’s tall Cross and between two thieves crucified with him. The thief who recognised Christ as Lord is distinguished on the left by a gold nimbus, his head quietly bowed in death. He counterbalances the thief on the right who rebuked Christ, and so writhes in pain. The penitent thief is promised a place in Paradise; the sceptical thief is destined for Hell, with a black-winged devil waiting with arms outstretched to capture and torture his soul. Christ thus stands symbolically at the axis between good and evil. His long fluid body, with elegantly svelte limbs nailed flat against the Cross, is cleverly contrasted with the shorter, stocky bodies of the thieves, their angular limbs bent cruelly and tied into place.
Immediately behind the crosses the ground drops away into a deep, wooded valley through which the eye is drawn to a walled city on the horizon. Early morning light rises to break dramatically across the dark sky. Christ’s outstretched body, with its soft flesh tones, is set triumphantly against this backdrop. The artist makes no pretence that this is anything other than an idealised North Italian landscape, into which is inserted the intense and pivotal episode from the Passion narrative.
Foppa achieves a powerful fusion of symbolism and realism at a time when images of the Crucifixion were increasingly intent on narrative detail and the magnification of horror. The artist thereby invites reflection on Christ’s triumph over death, and so on the Crucifixion as the means of human salvation.
Filarete’s treatise on architecture, being the treatise by Antonio di Piero Averlino, known as Filarete, John R. Spencer (trans. introduction and notes), New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1965, vol. 1, pp. 116–17, 327.