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Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalen

[image ALT: A painting of Christ crucified, between Mary on his right and John on his left, with Mary Magdalen ambracing his feet. It is a Renaissance fresco in the church of S. Maria Assunta in Pistrino, Umbria (central Italy).]

Wall to the right of the altar. 2.00 m by 1.85 m

The inscription is very fragmentary. Dated 15. ., it reads, with a bit of very tentative emendation on my part,

Quest' opera cio . . . . . . e . . . Giovann . . .

na . . . fe fare . . . . . . a . . . avi . . . di . . .

It's just enough (fe far) for us to tell that an individual commissioned the painting.

This 16c fresco is an attractive painting, mostly because of a certain depth of feeling since technically it is not by any means a great work: Christ's face is handsome and well rendered, but the faces of the Virgin and St. John flat and perfunctory, and that of Mary Magdalen somewhat conventionally soft; the draperies, insofar as we can tell in the current state of preservation, are unconvincing except for Mary Magdalen's robe.

The interest of this painting, to me, lies elsewhere. Compositionally, it is somewhat unusual in that the figure of Mary Magdalen draws the eye down and organizes the painting as a lozenge. Iconographically, it is of even more interest in several respects.

To start with the least unusual: in his depiction of Mary Magdalen, and in emphasizing one long strand of her hair, the painter is recalling the scene in the Gospel where she embraces Jesus's feet and wipes them with her hair — not after Jesus's death, though, but when he was having dinner with friends (Luke 7.37‑46). This is not that uncommon, however, nor is Magdalen's perfume jar, which serves both to identify her and to connect the two episodes further.

The Virgin's stance is next in my list. There is nothing unusual about it per se, but in this context, her arms mirror those of the dead Christ and suggest an intimate, even a co-redemptive, participation in his sufferings. I might be reading too much into this painting, if I hadn't seen an even clearer instance of Mary as Co-Redemptrix in a Crucifixion at S. Maria della Misericordia in Spello; the odds are this is not accidental here.

And finally, there's the little lizard just below Mary's feet. Other than the jar of ointment, bearer of its own traditional meaning, it is the only item of note amidst the sketched-in plants: it is surely meant as significant. Is it the dragon on which Mary treads? Is it a reminder of the serpent of Aaron's rod lifted up as is Christ on the Cross, for the salvation of Israel? Or is it Evil now become small thru the death of Christ?

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Page updated: 27 Feb 01