Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych

Date: 1426
Style: Northern Renaissance
Genre: religious painting
Media: oil, wood
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York City, NY, US
Dimensions: 56.5 x 19.7 cm

The Crucifixion and Last Judgement diptych (or Diptych with Calvary and Last Judgement) consists of two small painted panels attributed to the Early Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck, with areas finished by unidentified followers or members of his workshop. This diptych is one of the early Northern Renaissance oil on panel masterpieces, renowned for its unusually complex and highly detailed iconography, and for the technical skill evident in its completion. It was executed in a miniature format; the panels are just 56.5 cm (22.2 in) high by 19.7 cm (7.8 in) wide. The diptych was probably commissioned for private devotion. The left-hand wing depicts the Crucifixion. It shows Christ’s followers grieving in the foreground, soldiers and spectators milling about in the mid-ground and a portrayal of three crucified bodies in the upper-ground. The scene is framed against an azure sky with a view of Jerusalem in the distance. The right-hand wing portrays scenes associated with the Last Judgement: a hellscape at its base, the resurrected awaiting judgement in the centre-ground, and a representation of Christ in Majesty flanked by a Great Deësis of saints, apostles, clergy, virgins and nobility in the upper section. Portions of the work contain Greek, Latin and Hebrew inscriptions. The original gilt frames contain Biblical passages in Latin drawn from the books of Isaiah, Deuteronomy and Revelation. According to a date written in Russian on their reverse, the panels were transferred to canvas supports in 1867. The earliest surviving mention of the work appears in 1841, when scholars believed the two panels were wings of a lost triptych. The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the diptych in 1933. At that time, the work was attributed to Jan’s brother Hubert because key areas formally resembled pages of the Turin-Milan Hours, which were then believed to be of Hubert’s hand. On the evidence of technique and the style of dress of the figures, the majority of scholars believe the panels are late works by Jan van Eyck, executed in the early 1430s and finished after his death. Other art historians hold that van Eyck painted the panels around the early 1420s and attribute the weaker passages to a younger van Eyck’s relative inexperience. Along with Robert Campin and later Rogier van der Weyden, Van Eyck revolutionised the approach towards naturalism and realism in Northern European painting during the early to mid 15th century. He was the first to manipulate oils to give the close detailing that infused his figures with the high degree of realism and complexity of emotion seen in this diptych. He coupled this with a mastery of glaze to create luminous surfaces with a deep perspective—most noticeable in the upper portion of the Crucifixion panel—which had not been achieved before. In the 1420s and 1430s, when oil and panel painting were still in their infancy, vertical formats were often used for depictions of the Last Judgement, because the narrow framing particularly suited a hierarchical presentation of heaven, earth and hell. By contrast, depictions of the Crucifixion were usually presented in a horizontal format. To fit such expansive and highly detailed representations onto two equally small and narrow wings, van Eyck was forced to make a number of innovations, redesigning many elements of the Crucifixion panel to match the vertical and condensed presentation of the Judgement narrative. The result is a panel with the crosses rising high into the sky, an unusually packed crowd scene in the mid-ground, and the moving spectacle of the mourners in the foreground, all rendered in a continuous slope from bottom to top in the style of medieval tapestries. Art historian Otto Pächt says it “is the whole world in one painting, an Orbis Pictus”.
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