Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)
Barnaba da Modena constructed his Crucifixion with a series of antitheses, beginning with the opposition between the celestial Christian realm and the earthbound dominion of pagan Rome. In the top section of the panel, a heavenly veil of gold envelops the figures. On Christ’s left, a demon yanks the Bad Thief’s soul out through his mouth; on his right, angels greet the modestly clad soul of the Good Thief.
In contrast with the luminous upper register, the claustrophobic section below features dramatic vignettes that combine New Testament and non-canonical narratives. For example, the Virgin, who stands in the gospel accounts, here swoons, surrounded by her attendants, including a woeful John. Mary Magdalene embraces the foot of the Cross, while opposite her stands the figure who quenched Christ’s thirst with vinegar, here characterized as a young boy. In the lower right, Roman soldiers are gambling for Christ’s clothing. Above them, Pontius Pilate points to Christ, as the old order and the new collide in a clash of symbols. The S.P.Q.R. on the soldier’s banner, standing for “the Senate and people of Rome,” confronts the I.N.R.I. above Christ’s head, meant to mock him as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Barnaba da Modena was the foremost painter in late 14th-century Genoa, an artistic outpost of Siena. His conservative style, with its extensive use of gold, is unusually expressive. The crowded composition is divided into distinct figure groups marked by incongruities of scale and animated by lively gestures: the anguished Magdalene at the foot of the Cross, the swooning Virgin, and the quarreling soldiers who cast lots over Christ's robe. The redemptive significance of Christ's death on the Cross is emphasized in the unusual detail of the soul of the Good Thief borne aloft by angels. The soul of the Bad Thief is carried away by a demon.
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