A Virgin Mary and St John from a Crucifixion

Geldern or Lower Rhine
between 1515 and 1530

Fruitwood, remnants of old polychromy
Height 21.8 and 21,7 cm



These small figures of a mourning Virgin and St John originally flanked a crucified Christ that has not survived. Also missing is the pedestal, which will have been of a type often found in the Geldern / Lower Rhine region, depicting a landscape with skulls and bones—as an allusion to the site of Christ’s crucifixion, Golgotha, the “place of the skull”—and probably featuring figures as well.

This group was made for an altarpiece. It would scarcely have been intended for the “public space” of a church, however, but rather for a chapel or private domestic altar. That is suggested not only by the small format, but by a number of other aspects as well: the fact that it was clearly made to be seen from all sides, its virtuoso execution, the emotionality conveyed by the figures’ dynamic garments and bodies, and finally the curious form taken by John, who steps away from the cross to the right, while turning his head in the opposite direction.

All of this was intended to encourage closer inspection and thus lead to intense devotions. However, the statuettes have more than just religious ambitions.

They were evidently supposed to make an impression with their daedal character. This speculation is supported by the fact that they are made from the dense wood of a fruit tree, which allows very delicate work. There are aspects which suggest that the pieces were originally unpainted, despite the fact that the worn surface indicates they were treated with lye—a process generally used to remove paint. And indeed there are still minimal traces of old polychromy. We do not know whether these are remnants of original polychromy or whether the figure was painted later, nor can we tell whether it was painted completely or only in part.