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Art lesson in how to pray

14 April 2022

Nicholas Cranfield offers an Easter reflection after contemplating a 14th-century triptych depicting Christ’s crucifixion and the events of the triduum

Courtauld Institute

Central panel of the Crucifixion triptych, Western German School, in the collection of the Courtauld Institute

Central panel of the Crucifixion triptych, Western German School, in the collection of the Courtauld Institute

SINCE 1947, the Courtauld Institute Collection has owned an early painted triptych, long known as “The Estouteville Triptych” because of the crest painted on the central image. It was first published in 1922 as an English work of the middle or second half of the 14th century. More recent scholarship has established that it is German, dating from about 1374; and has shown that the arms (misread as those of the Anglo-Norman d’Estoutevilles) were added later. It is a rare survivor of the iconoclastic vicissitudes of the Protestant Reformation, and the suppression of religious houses across Northern Europe.

The triptych stands just shy of two feet tall and — as currently encased at the Courtauld — is at the perfect height to approach, as countless priests, penitents, and devotees have done. It was most probably commissioned for a Franciscan: the outer panels (which would have formed the doors to close the central image from view) have a scene from the life of Francis himself and two other Franciscan saints, Clare and King Louis of Toulouse (canonised in 1317), who stand between St Andrew and St Paul.

St Francis is painted, standing next to Brother Leo, against a starry night. He is preaching to eight birds perched in a tree, including a very knowing owl on the lowest branch. Three others fly in, late, to hear the message — like assiduous parishioners who attend church regularly but are always unpunctual.

IN THE central panel, the scene at Calvary is depicted between six smaller narrative scenes: to our left, the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Kings and, below them, the Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple. On the other side, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Death of the Virgin complete the frame. Above each panel stand four angels, the two outermost playing musical instruments.

Christ on the cross takes up the top half, while below, as if in an arcade of delicately carved gothic arches, are the scenes of the Footwashing, the Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Resurrection. Missing is any representation of the Last Supper, but this is deliberate, since that would be enacted in the eucharistic action celebrated in front of the triptych by the priest at mass.

In the foot-washing (John 13.9-10), Jesus kneels on the green-and-white tiled floor — the same flooring as can be seen in the earlier scenes, and which reappears in the Upper Room at Pentecost — gently lifting Peter’s right leg by cupping his hand behind his calf. Peter’s confused assertiveness might check our own over-hasty assent to Jesus.

The other 11 apostles crowd in behind, the golden fans of the haloes of those in the front row obscuring those behind. We only glimpse the red head of one of them, traditionally an identification of Judas. Would we have pushed forward so intently to try to see over the heads of others what was being played out?

In the scene depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is deep in prayer, abandoned by his three closest disciples who have fallen asleep around him. He looks up at the cup that is presented before him. The artist follows the Passion account of Luke 22.44, where “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down up on the ground.”

The Meditationes Vitae Christi, a 14th-century devotional work, popularised a piety to the scattered blood. We see the drops of blood cascading down Jesus’s robes and on to the grassy hillock with the spring flowers of the Mount of Olives. A low wicker palisade bounds the garden from the Kedron brook.

WHEN, in 410, Anicia Proba, a widow in her thirties, fled the sack of Rome with her surviving granddaughter, Demetrias, to Africa, she asked the bishop there how to pray. She had left behind her the sacked city, the destruction and loss of her family, livelihood, and home: her question is one that is on the lips of many refugees in our own day: how to pray, when God seems so absent in the destruction going on around us.

St Augustine, in one of his two responses, reminded her of Gethsemane. We have an honest desire to avoid pain, but we need also to submit ourselves to God.

On the cross, Christ’s eyes are closed in death. The crown of thorns is vividly painted green (as it is also in the original wall-paintings in the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris). Three nails pin him to the wood. To his right, his mother has fainted, and is being gently lowered on to the lap of one of the Maries by the Magdalen, who grips the Virgin around the waist. Behind the four women stands John, looking at his Lord and Master, his hands held out helplessly and imploringly in front of him.

On the other side, a second group of five figures is brought sharply to a halt by the centurion, who wears a red cloak over his armour and points to the dead man: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15.39). Next to him are another soldier and, between them, one of the Jewish doctors of the Law. Only the two partly glimpsed figures behind have eyes for the Saviour.

Each of the Gospels records the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Here, the four symbolic representations of the Evangelists (an angel, winged lion, eagle, and bull) gaze intently towards the dying God at Calvary. They are witnesses for us of the truth.

THE final scene is that of Christ’s rising on the first morning of Easter. Here, the Lord steps delicately out of the sarcophagus, carefully avoiding treading on any of the three sleeping soldiers. The image is composed in such a way as to suggest that he is climbing out of a bath. This is not such an irreverent observation when we remind ourselves that it is in the waters of baptism that we are buried with Christ in his death, and by them we share also in his resurrection.

Less commonly than in the art of later centuries, the Risen Christ is robed in a red cloak, richly decorated on the inside with gold. The garment appears again in the scene of the Ascension, as does the banner of resurrection which he holds in his left hand. In this depiction, the flag, too, is red, with a white Fleury cross.

Portraying the Risen Lord in red is unusual. A 15th-century panel in the Maidstone Museum and Bentlif Art Gallery shows just such a representation (with a white cross emblazoned on a red pennant), while — with rather more accomplishment — Christ climbs equally lightly out of his tomb in the early-14th-century manuscript illumination of a Homiliary which comes to Baltimore from the Lower Rhineland and is displayed in the Walters Art Museum (W.148).

All of us who come to the foot of the cross can hope to share in the light of the resurrection — as those who have prayed before this triptych have done before us.

The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in the diocese of Southwark.

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