Contemporary Crucifixion: Renato Guttuso's modern Italian masterpiece

"Crucifixion,” a wall-sized oil painting created by Renato Guttuso (1911-87), one of Italy’s finest modern painters, is widely recognized as a 20th-century masterpiece today. But a year after the painting was unveiled in Rome in 1941, during World War II, it sparked controversy. Guttuso, who had made an international debut by winning first prize at the prestigious Premio Bergamo in 1938, was in the process of establishing an international reputation as an artist. When “Crucifixion” won second prize in 1942, the honor solidified his stature and brought him fame. Yet that very year the Vatican condemned the painting, dubbed Guttuso pictor diabolicus, “devilish painter,” and forbade Catholics to see the scandalous work. In several obituaries published in the United States, reporters noted that Guttuso had also been excommunicated because of it. According to one priest, however, he was reunited to the church by a deathbed confession.

The identity of the person (or group, perhaps) who objected to the work is unclear, but the Vatican’s concerns likely involved the painting’s nudity and modernist style. The unclothed figure of Mary Magdalene (center) likely caused offense, given that she is a saint of the church. In fact, nearly all the figures in the image—male and female—are nude. Add to that Mary’s gesture: she clings to Jesus’ body with both hands. Cubist elements may have seemed inappropriate for a depiction of the crucifixion, not to mention the composition, in which Jesus is placed not at the center of the image, as custom has it, and his face is largely obscured. The artist’s personal politics, as an active anti-Fascist and member of the Communist Party, also may have contributed to the Vatican’s critique. These criticisms, however, should themselves be criticized in light of the painting’s popularity, depth and potential to offer spiritual enrichment.

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Today Guttuso’s “Crucifixion” is widely admired and widely seen. In 2010, for instance, this work and other of Guttuso’s antiwar paintings were part of a major exhibition in London presenting 20 years of anti-Fascist art by many Italian artists (Guttuso’s “The Massacre,” an expressionist painting from 1943, was chosen as the cover image for the catalog). And “Crucifixion” was recently on view at the Complesso del Vittoriano in Rome as part of a yearlong major retrospective, with 100 wide-ranging works, titled “Guttuso 1912-2012,” to honor the centenary of the artist’s birth.

Contemporary viewers must understand “Crucifixion” on two levels: its own historical context, that is, as a product of wartime Italy, and also as religious art. The former perspective gives the work a politically charged interpretation. The latter enables the painting to inspire us today.

A close look at the painting will reveal that, at first glance, “Crucifixion” depicts the horror of a grizzly execution: three men are strung up naked on tall crosses, while three women below them weep, flail their arms or hide their faces. Boldly, the artist has placed the instruments of torture in the foreground, where they cannot be missed: not only a hammer and nails but also a knife, scissors and bottles, perhaps of vinegar/gall (to minimize pain). We find ourselves looking at an anti-torture, anti-tyranny proclamation, a work opposed to cruelty.

By directing most of the faces away from the viewer, the artist gives the scene an everyman/everywoman quality, as if to remind us that tortuous deaths happen to many people, even now. We can see the applicability of this scene to newspaper accounts of wartime atrocities in Syria, Mali or the Sudan. The image of crucifixion is readily applicable to our times.

The artist’s appeal to the crucifixion of Jesus enables viewers to see more clearly and empathetically the forms of inhumanity taking place around them. “This is wartime,” Guttuso confided to his diary, “Abyssinia, gallows, decapitations, Spain. I want to paint the agony of Christ as a scene of today...as a symbol of all those who, because of their ideas, endure outrage, imprisonment and torment.”

While it has universal application, “Crucifixion” adheres closely to the biblical accounts of Jesus’ death. A crown of thorns identifies Jesus, which allows viewers to recognize other biblical characters from the story: the thieves, one of whom is painted in a blood-curdling cadmium red, and the disconsolate Magdalene. Two armed men on horseback, Roman soldiers, keep watch; the one holding a pair of dice has won the wager for Jesus’ cloak, which he has draped over his mount. The story is as clear as a stained glass window, and Guttuso knew that in the 1940s even Italian peasants could read its meanings. To magnify both the visual tension and the narrative drama, the artist has packed eight people and two horses into the picture. Behind them lies the city, a telling inclusion that lets the viewer see just how far off and isolated is this murderous episode we are witnessing. Overhead hovers a sky blackened by grief.

In choosing the crucifixion as a subject, Guttuso pointedly reminds viewers that Rome exercised world power in Jesus’ day and that religious leaders colluded with the Romans in Jesus’ death. As Guttuso painted, Benito Mussolini’s Rome allied itself with Adolph Hitler; the Axis powers invaded European nations and systematically slaughtered Jews (like Jesus) by the millions. The dictators had largely co-opted the churches, despite instances of resistance. “Crucifixion” protests this abuse of religious and state power.

In fact, Guttuso painted a preparatory watercolor study entitled “Die Passion,” in which one soldier on horseback bears the face of Adolph Hitler; he raises his arm in salute and looks directly at the viewer. This was a brave thing for an artist to commit to paper in 1940. It is not surprising that Guttuso omitted this caricature from “Crucifi-xion.” That decision kept the painting from being tied to one historical era and magnified its applicability to future generations. The crucifixion itself gives the work its inherent, transcendent power.

“Crucifixion” is now 72 years old. Its modernist style speaks the language of contemporary people, accustomed as we are to cubist elements, distorted forms and chaotic movement in an image. We have grown up with Picasso’s antiwar mural of 1937, “Guernica,” which influenced Guttuso, who started work on “Crucifixion” just three years after seeing Picasso’s stunning protest against the Spanish Civil War.

“Crucifixion,” which depends on flattened shapes of red, blue, brown, gray and white, makes real for us the central scandal of Christianity—that the humanity Jesus desired to save, instead rejected, tortured and killed him like a common criminal. The painting helps us draw parallels with current atrocities, as the artist had hoped.

Furthermore, although nudity is ubiquitous in advertisements across many cultures, most viewers today would not allow it to obstruct the spiritual message of the art. And although nudity is depicted, it is the nakedness, a related but distinct concept, that makes a strong statement. Was not the crucifixion a historic nadir, a traumatic moment on the human calendar when the human race and its institutions were revealed in their abject nakedness, in destructive rebellion against God and wholly in need of redemption? The mayhem depicted in Guttuso’s painting describes those days before Jesus’ tomb was found empty, when hope seemed lost and humanity seemed condemned to meaningless suffering. Surely that is worth pondering.

When I saw Guttuso’s painting for the first time, last November in Rome, I was deeply moved. In reflecting on it, I have found the work to be a rich and inspiring resource, with themes as timely as they are broadly applicable. As a Lenten image, it assists with prayer and meditation.

Art looks different over time. Time can divorce or at least distance an artwork from the historical events that motivated the artist. Historic events may once have given the work a special urgency and power as it poured light on some horror or injustice crying out for redress. If such timeliness and critical insight, or the style or the nudity of the figures, brings condemnation of a work, its artistic merit and spiritual meaning may be obscured—for a time. Fortunately, a painting’s true meaning and spiritual significance will eventually become clear if the work is a masterpiece. Renato Guttuso’s “Crucifixion” continues to communicate on both the religious and the political level, and the art community has judged it, aesthetically, to be a masterwork.

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