School of Naples
Crucifixion with the Madonna, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene
late seventeenth, early eighteenth century
oil on canvas

Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 44449

General Description

Restored several times, this painting was originally rectangular and later made oval. It presents an elaborate model of the crucifixion as found in paintings by Francesco Solimena and Luca Giordano. Characteristic of these paintings are the theatrical poses of the various actors and the small angels filling the sky. The color scheme of intense black and blue skies, contrasting with laquered carmine and flesh-colored pink, points to a date close to the turn of the seventeenth century, and heightens the overall dramatic rendering of the crucifixion event. The painting is of unknown artist, but in style reminiscent of Sebastiano Conca (1680-1764).

The presence of the Madonna, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross is part of the classical repertoire of the crucifixion scene. The swooning Madonna, John’s gesture of tender support, and Mary Magdalene’s posture of loving dedication, however, are reminiscent of baroque dramatization.

The Meaning of the Crucifixion Event

At the very heart of the Christian memory lies the memoria passionis, mortis et resurrectionis Christi (the memory of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection). This is the center and focal point of Christian identity. Creation without incarnation lacks fulfillment; incarnation without its accomplishment in redemption remains devoid of meaning. It is only on Easter morning that the Cross of Christ, the tree of suffering and sacrifice, truly becomes the tree of life. The deepest of all Christian memories thus links and unites the tree of life in paradise (Gen. 2:9) and the tree of life of the world to come (Rev. 22: 1-2). Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of the Christian story, are capsulized in the memory of the crucified and risen Lord. In Christ’s memoria the tragic tensions and polarities of existence are revealed, and it is this same memory which ponders the ultimate victory of salvation. For in the tree of salvation, the perpetual crises of human existence – the estrangement, suffering, senselessness and death – are accepted and overcome.

The Crucifixion in Art

Early on, Christ on the Cross was represented with open eyes and frequently wearing a tunic (colobium), thus symbolizing the resurrected and living redeemer. At the foot of the Cross we find Mary, mostly to the right, and John to the left of Christ. Next to them we often see the diminutive figures of Longinus with the lance and Stephaton with sponge and vinegar bucket. Other personages may join Mary and John – sometimes women, e.g., Mary Magdalene, and soldiers; in later centuries the symbolic figures of Church (Ecclesia) and Synagogue were often added. In the Middle Ages, as in modern times, theological symbolism is frequently abandoned for more graphic representations of the crucifixion. We no longer encounter the triumphant Lord, but Ecce Homo, with closed eyes, dead, his body tortured and almost naked.

From earliest times, the presence of Mary and John at the foot of the Cross was to witness the Calvary event and its significance. Gradually, the two figures came to be regarded as role models for the believer. They express sadness and pain. John is often shown with the typical gesture of putting his left hand against his left cheek. Mary is sometimes pointing with both hands to her dying Son, or, with outstretched arms, expressing tacit understanding and abandonment, even attempting to touch the body of Christ.

Through the centuries, numerous secondary themes developed. Not only does one find the fainting of Mary and John’s comforting gesture, but also Mary and John standing on the graves of Adam and Eve; Mary, the new Eve, crushing the head of the serpent; Mary collecting the blood of Christ in her chalice; Mary interceding for us; Mary in conversation with John. The most popular of these themes represents the compassion of Mary, her overall posture assimilated with that of Christ and, thus, suggesting intimacy with her suffering Son.

A Marianist Icon

The Calvary event is described in John 19:25-27. Commemorating the central truths of Christianity, the Calvary event also represents an important spiritual icon of the Family of Mary, a family of Marianist religious and lay people, men and women, present on the campus of the University of Dayton (place of this exhibit) for more than 150 years. This icon of collective identity is in fact a prayer called the Three O’Clock Prayer. Recited at the hour of Christ’s death, therefore called Three O’Clock Prayer, it captures not only the deeper memories of Christian faith; it also conveys the particular spirit which continues to inspire the members of the Family of Mary. This is how the Three O’Clock Prayer reads and prays in its present form:

Lord Jesus,
we gather in spirit at the foot of the Cross
with your Mother and the disciple whom you loved.
We ask your pardon for our sins
which are the cause of your death.
We thank you
for remembering us
in that hour of salvation and for giving us Mary as our Mother.
Holy Virgin,
take us under your protection
and open us to the action of the Holy Spirit.
Saint John,
obtain for us the grace of taking Mary
into our life, as you did,
and of assisting her in her mission. Amen.
May the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit
be glorified in all places
through the Immaculate Virgin Mary.
For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 111-112.

For more on Mary in the Marianist tradition see:  The Mary Page: campus.udayton.edu/mary/medmenu.html;  (scroll down to #6, The Marianist Corner).

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