The Geometry of Calvary

Glances at the work of Paul Delvaux (III) – English Version*
*[Versió Catalana just aquí]

(This post continues two others you may read here  and  here)

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7. The Crucifixions and Depositions – Les Crucifixions et Descentes de Croix

Among the many works that Delvaux painted in his long life, there is a peculiar series of Crucifixions, Depositions and Entombments of Christ, carried out between 1949 and the late 50s, which stands aside of his usual subjects (I’ve shown and commented them in previous posts). As a matter of fact, the skeletons were already present in the 1930s, since the painter visited the Spitzner Museum at the Brussels Fair, where some of them were displayed along with automats and other curiosities; a thing that interested and captivated him deeply. So, he painted a row of them, alone or in company of the usual Venuses, vestals and abstracted scholars. However, to bring them to the Calvary -in the very crosses as well as all around, figuring the Christ, the two Thieves -Dismas and Gestas-, the Mother of Christ, Mary of Magdala, John, Joseph of Arimathea, etc. (not the Roman soldiers, anyway)- was a very different matter; a theme aside which occupied him with some intensity during near a decade and which resulted in very impressive and even astounding paintings -like the Crucifixions from 1952 and 1957, to mention the two of them that astound me the more.

(Maybe it is needless to say that the word “Calvary” comes from the Latin calvaria (skull), and that this probably was the first inspiration of the artist for populating his own depictions of It with skeletons.)

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Crucifixion (1952, oil on panel, 178,5 × 266,5)

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Crucifixion II (1954)

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-The Crucifixion from 1957, named “Ecce Homo”, is the largest in size and most dense in contents. Besides, it has the peculiarity of showing a Christ of flesh and blood (and naturally, bones too) painted in the Romanesque style, and particularly, as far as I appreciate, Catalan-Occitan Romanesque (just have a look at the Depositions from Sant Joan de les Abadesses and from Santa Maria de Taüll, kept in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). The agitation and pathos of the figures contrasts beautifully with Christ’s serene elegance and languor, turning him even more mystical; more transcendental.

Observing the white walls with open doorways and the background landscape -with additional portals or arches-, we notice that it is the same Paysage aux Lanternes that Delvaux painted the following year: 1958 (you may watch it on my second post about Delvaux). There is a lady in the foreground, seen from behind, who is apparently looking to a corpse on a stretcher covered with a shroud being carried in the distance; so I opine that the lady might be either the Mother of Christ or his other beloved Mary: the disciple and companion.

The change of direction of the shadows also seems to indicate the different hour between both scenes; and evidently the Crucifixion would have ended in the painting with the standing lady.

[In order to highlight some details, I adjoin -just below- three fragments visible in better resolution]:

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crucifixion-iii-1957-adj
Ecce Homo – [Crucifixion III] (1957, oil on canvas, 270 x 200 cm)
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8. The Depositions – Les Descentes de Croix

The older one -as far as I know- dates from February 1949. The scenery is clearly urban and modern, and there is even a tower with a clock -which seems to signal 3:00 (possibly a.m.)

Among the well-known Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus (the figure on the ladder), Mary the Mother, the other three Marys and John the Evangelist, it is not difficult to notice that one of the women stays uncovered. It may be the one who is kneeling at the feet of Christ or the foremost of the two sat down at the left; in the first case she would be Mary Magdalene; in the second, she is the Mother of Christ (and the Magdalene would be the covered figure just behind her).

As the image resolution barely allows to read the piece of cloth or parchment nailed at the foot of the Cross, I will point out that it says: “Ecce Homo”; which is the alternative name of this painting.

Rather naturally, the remaining nails in the crossbar reveal to us that it has not been necessary to pluck them off in order to depose this unfleshed Christ; but then, I wonder where does the blood come from…?

ecce-homo-1949
La Descente du Croix [Ecce Homo] (1949, huile sur triplex, 180 × 260 cm)

9. The Entombments – Les Mises au Tombeau

La Mise au Tombeau from 1951 forms a clear sequence with the following year’s Crucifixion I (the one at the heading of this post) -look at both paintings side by side below; it seems obvious that both episodes take place at locations very close, and maybe contiguous. Quite a few details are common in both, aside of the style and painting technique.

What pleases me the most from this work is the embrace from the Mother and the way her mantle merges with the shroud of Christ, very much as if she is wrapping herself with it. I also consider most remarkable the expressiveness of the several skulls -lacking flesh and eyes and everything… (this must be very difficult to accomplish!)

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the-deposition-1951
La Mise au Tombeau (1951)

-In The Entombment of 1953 we find again the same undulated roof from the previous painting and, this time, two flags (one blue and one red); besides some industrial geometry -not especially noteworthy, but decorative- at the background:

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the-burial-1953
The Entombment (1953)

-The last Entombment, from 1957, -the smallest one in size- brings us back, for its landscape and details of composition, to the more usual Delvaux which I have commented a little in my precedent posts: the electric poles, the fences, the sewer lid…, and the paved road that leads beyond the painting; in this case, from the tomb of Christ.

More than anything, it intrigues me here the presence of eight figures accompanying the corpse; one more than in all other similar scenes by the artist, and as a matter of fact, than in the Catholic iconographic tradition. Is it, perhaps, Delvaux himself…?:

the-focus-tombs-1957
La Mise au tombeau (1957, huile sur bois, 130 × 120 cm)


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If you have liked this article on Paul Delvaux, you may find the first two parts in this same blog:

  1. The quiet exactness of dreams – Glances at the work of Paul Delvaux (I)
  2. Nudes, lampposts, abstracted scholars and first skeletons – Glances at the work of Paul Delvaux (II)

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