Francisco de Zurbarán (Fuente de Cantos, Badajoz 1598 - 1664 Madrid), Christ on the cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, and Saint John at his feet. Photo Sotheby's

Signed and dated at the foot of the cross: Fran.co de zurbarán 1655. Oil on canvas, 212 by 163 cm.; 83 ½ by 64 ¼ in. 

In the collection of Janio Marques de Almeida, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, by 1997;
Acquired by the present owner around 2002.

Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Zurbarán al Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, 1998, no. 5;
Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes, El Ultimo Zurbarán, 2000, no. 7;
Albuquerque, El Alma de España, 17 April – 31 July 2005;
Fort Worth, The Kimbell Museum, Guests of Honor, 2005-6.

Exhibition catalogue, Zurbarán al Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Museo Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona,1998, pp. 88-93, no. 5, reproduced p. 89
Exhibition catalogue, Zurbarán: IV Centenario, Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville, 8 October - 9 December 1998, p. 22, entry by Enrique Valdivieso;
O. Delenda, ‘Bilan d’un centenaire, Zurbarán’, in Dossier de l’Art, no. 53, 98, p. 28;O. O. Delenda, ‘Zurbarán en la Actualidad’, in Actas del SImposium Internacional Zurbarán y su epoca, Fuentedecantos, 1998, p. 21, reproduced fig. 1;
P. Cherry, ‘Seville and elsewhere Zurbarán’, in Burlington Magazine, February 1999, no. 1151, p. 130, reproduced fig. 83;
Exhibition catalogue, El Primer Naturalismo en Sevilla, Seville, Hospital de los Venerables, 29 November 2005 - 28 February 2006, and Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes, 20 March - 28 May 2006, p. 258, reproduced fig. 138;
O. Delenda, Francisco de Zurbarán, Catálogo Razonado y Crítico, vol. I, Madrid 2009, pp. 647-48, cat. no. 234, reproduced p. 647;
Exhibition catalogue, Zurbarán, Ferrara, Palazzo Diamanti, 14 September 2013 – 6 January 2014, p. 50, reproduced fig. 22.

This deeply moving and monumental representation of Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Evangelist is a late masterpiece by Francisco de Zurbarán, painted in Seville towards the end of the artist's career, in 1655. The picture is an outstanding example of the artist’s late style, the only known treatment of the crucifixion by the master to include the figures of the Virgin, Mary Magdalen and Saint John at the foot of the Cross, and one of only two crucifixions by Zurbarán remaining in private hands today.

Remarkably the painting was only discovered in 1997/98, having lain undetected in a South American private collection. It was displayed to the public for the first time in the exhibition on Zurbarán held at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona in 1998 to mark the fourth centenary of the birth of the great master from Extremadura. At the time of the discovery the work was restored by Marco Grassi in New York and a photograph of the painting in a stripped state reveals that a limited number of losses were confined predominantly to the neutral background, as well as some parts of the mantle of the Virgin, whilst the striking figure of Christ remains in a remarkable state of preservation.1

Zurbarán's design is a tour de force. Against an intense black background, the anguished figure of Christ is lit by a powerful light from the left side, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional form that in its sense of volume and monumentality recalls the sculptures of leading Sevillian artists of the day, such as Juan Martínez Montañés and Juan de la Mesa. At the foot of the cross the forlorn figure of the Virgin is comforted in her grief by Mary Magdalene, who stares out to the viewer, drawing us in as witnesses to the harrowing scene, whilst to the right Saint John the Evangelist looks up to the dying Christ with an intense look of devotion and belief, his clasped hands inviting the onlooker to a life of devotion and prayer and thereby ultimately leading us to our salvation. The unusual inclusion of the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Evangelist, Christ’s favoured apostle, supports the work's original function as an altarpiece. The half-length figures would have been on the same level as the priest performing Mass in celebration of Christ's sacrifice and as such provided the ideal backdrop to the consecration of the bread and wine and their transubstantiation into the body and blood of Christ, thereby underpinning the central mystery of the Christian faith.

Iconographically the artist has deviated from the more traditional Cristos muertos en la Cruz for the Cristo expirante type that depicts the final moment just before Christ’s expiration, His chest expanded to take one final breath as He calls out to his father: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.’ As pointed out by Odile Delenda, the intense drama and anguish captured in the scene provides a departure from the more serene treatments of the subject painted by the artist earlier in his career, and it may be that this heightened degree of spiritual anguish was depicted at the behest of the artist’s patron following the terrible plague in Spain of 1649.

Some eleven other treatments of The Crucifixion by Zurbarán are known today, ranging in date from his painting of 1627 in the Art Institute, Chicago, to the celebrated Artist before Christ on the Cross, datable to around 1655-60, in the Prado, Madrid. Of these treatments however, six are today in international museums (five of which are in Spain), four remain in churches or religious institutions (three in Spain and one in Cuzco, Peru), whilst only one other (in addition to the present work) remains in private hands. As pointed out by Odile Delenda in her 2009 catalogue raisonné of the works of Francisco de Zurbarán:

‘Esta obra maestra muestra que en estas fechas de sus últimos años en Sevilla, Zurbarán conserva una fuerza expresiva increíble dentro de la evolución de su técnica.’

‘This masterpiece shows that during his last years in Seville, Zurbarán continued to achieve extraordinary powers of expression within the evolution of his style.’ (Translation)

Indeed, the painting can be rightly considered an outstanding work by perhaps the most quintessential and authentic Spanish painter of all time. Through its directness and immediacy, Zurbarán's intensly powerful and dramatic depiction of Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist at His Feet is as moving to viewers today as when painted in Seville some three and a half centuries ago.

The present work has been requested for the exhibition Francisco Zurbarán. Nueva mirada, to be held at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, on 9 June - 13 September 2015.

1. See a photograph of the painting in its stripped state see O. Delenda, op. cit., p. 648, fig. 1, reproduced.

Sotheby's. Contemplation of the Divine, London, 05 juil. 2014-16 juil. 2014.