For the past few years this has been the painting I visit most often. I love how concentrated it is—as if the biggest painting in the Met had been compressed into a shoebox. The panel itself is so modest, so slender, barely big enough for two viewers to look at shoulder to shoulder, but it contains more drama and more subtlety than any mural. It has everything: blood and horses, mockery and torture, weeping women who crumple into origami shapes, and in the distance, the most beautiful cumulus clouds in the history of art. And that’s not even mentioning the subject, which, for van Eyck, would have been history’s pivotal event. And then of course it is painted with such uncanny finesse, as if we were looking into the miniature brightness of a camera lucida.
And yet, for all its delicacy, there’s nothing mannered, nothing polite here. Look at the two bearded guys on horseback: the one in yellow caught in the middle of a feisty laugh, mouth open, as his friend raises his fingers to makes some kind of crass joke. They’re biker dudes. Relaxed, fierce, at ease in the crowd, unfazed by death. They set the mood of malevolent jollity for the middle band of the picture. Lots of glinting metal, bright color, confusion. A crowd enjoying a grisly spectacle. It’s a foretaste of Bosch, or Grosz, or Dix. Except that this never feels, as some of those German 1920s paintings do, like a polemic: we’re all thugs and whores, Q.E.D. With van Eyck, you feel right away that you are in the grip of a bigger, more encompassing imagination. There are gentle faces, numb faces, and at the extreme right, almost lost in the welter of cloaks and hats, another figure on horseback raises his arms in amazement.
Alex Nagel pointed out that this is the centurion who was converted at the moment of Jesus’s death, saying, “Truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). It’s a key detail in the narrative: it tells us that the Christ shown here is not dying but dead. On my own, I spend more time admiring anonymous details, like the way one horse’s back hoof catches light for a moment, shining in the dimness. The perfect, metallic coolth of that horseshoe! It reminds me of the little throwaway details in Tolstoy, extra glimpses, possibly gratuitous, catching us off guard.
Alex also pointed out the two armed men on the lower right, one of whom carries a small Mongol riding shield. What are Mongols doing in the Holy Land? I would never have known they were Mongols, but it doesn’t surprise me; van Eyck seems virtually omniscient. His breadth reminds me of Rackstraw Downes’s terrific early essay about completeness. Downes argued that Modernism, in its drive for purity, lost the inclusiveness, the empirical breadth, of earlier art. Not just the willingness to render things, but the sense of the range of possible experience. To me, this is the perfect example of Downes’s point, a painting that registers everything—a glinting horseshoe, a visiting Mongol, the death of God.
At the Met we spent almost all our time poring over the Crucifixion scene, pretty much ignoring its sibling panel, the Last Judgment on the right. Some might argue that second panel is even more complete, more encompassing, since it includes heaven, earth, and a very crowded hell. But it seems like a diagram to me, three separate illustrations sutured together. The Crucifixion is so powerfully a single scene. I love the way each of its different bands or zones links and intensifies the others.
The foreground is a refuge, not just emotionally but even graphically. In the center is Mary, hidden in a cocoon of dark blue fabric. Only her face and fingertips are visible. The other figures are similarly cloaked and obscured, and one woman, nearest to us, appears as a big irregular shape of black cloth. What we might be tempted to see as a kind of “abstraction” is in fact privacy. We don’t deserve to witness their grief.
Above the mourners and the mocking crowd, however, everything is visible. We see the three dead men, painfully exposed against the bright pale sky. It’s an unflinching scene, as macabre and painful as an ISIS video. The two thieves are blindfolded and tied, not nailed, to their crosses. Their hands have turned gray from lack of circulation. Jesus is almost naked, wrapped only in a transparent cloth that exposes much of his pubic hair. His bony, sticklike body is itself a crucifix. A runnel of blood clings to the spear shaft that penetrates his side; another courses down his leg.
It’s hard to contemplate that grimness for long, so instead we glance back to the jeerers and spectators, to take a kind of solace in their obliviousness. And then we return to the intimacy of the mourners—one of who, presumably Mary Magdalene, looks up at Jesus, leading us back to his speared body. So the painting is a circuit: satire, horror, tenderness. Again and again. Many Christian crucifixions become just beautiful pictures. Melancholy, but not really painful. This one is tougher. Looking at it, I think always of Auden’s great, grim poem, written not long after World War II, The Shield of Achilles, where he describes a triple crucifixion. It might be the Christian one; it might not.
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.
The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came.
ALEXI WORTH is an artist. He lives in New York.