New Findings on the Function of Rogier van der Weyden’s Philadelphia Crucifixion
Mark S. Tucker, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The two panels that together form the Philadelphia Crucifixion, long attributed by many scholars to Rogier van der Weyden, have until recently eluded any convincing identification with prevalent forms or display contexts. Technical and stylistic observations arising from the present study suggest, however, the panels’ origin in a specific tradition with which they had not previously been associated: paintings made for the wing exteriors of Netherlandish carved altarpieces. The identification of the Philadelphia panels as wings—and more specifically wings integral to a sculptural project—is supported by the occurrence of a combination of features of carpentry, scale, proportions, and pictorial style.

The technical evidence of the panels’ having been altarpiece wings includes the original thinness of the oak panel stock, which is consistent with that specified traditionally for large wings. That the panels had imagery on their reverses and that they were elements of a carved altarpiece in particular is a horizontal row of original dowel holes that pass through the face of the panels near their bottom edges. Such dowelling, atypical of the construction, framing, or mounting of Netherlandish panel paintings, indicates the presence of an original engaged  member spanning the reverse of the panel. This position of this lost element falls proportionally within the range occupied by a standard feature of the Netherlandish carved altarpiece caisses: the integral shelves that support the sculpture and coincide with the upper horizontal edge of the openwork tracery panels that typically span the bottom of carved altarpiece interiors. A precedent for this type of dowel joinery is found in the wing caisses of the 1400-10 Hakendover altarpiece. Another is provided by the Frankfurt Flémalle Virgin and Child, which (along with the shared stylistic convention for carved altarpiece exteriors of the large scale figures’ depiction before a cloth-draped wall in a shallow exterior space) exhibits a horizontal row of dowel holes posited by Kemperdick in 1997 to be an indication of that panel’s origin in a carved retable. The structural evidence that the Philadelphia Crucifixion was not an independent work, but a counterpart to sculpture, introduces for consideration highly specific challenges of creation and presentation, and a new potential for comparison with other works. The stylistic breadth and austerity of the Philadelphia Crucifixion are particularly noteworthy in light of Philippot’s observation that carved altarpiece paintings reflect a distinct tradition, with idiomatic conceptual preferences stemming from their function as integrated components of the specific encompassing conception of those altarpieces.

Beyond the structural evidence, comparisons with key formal and stylistic features of the Philadelphia panels can be found on the exterior paintings of a wide sampling of Netherlandish carved altarpieces. Traits noted as consistent with the distinct traditions of carved retable exterior paintings include large overall size, the breadth of the composition (particularly the large scale of the figures relative to format) and its continuation across adjacent panels. Also consistent are the Philadelphia panels’ full coloring (in contrast to the tendency toward the grisaille of many solely painted altarpieces’ exteriors) and the placement of the scene before a wall draped with cloths of honor, creating a shallow, space comparable to that of the interior sculptural compartments. The linking of the painting’s space to the same constraints, forms, and artifice of the carved interior acknowledges sculptural space on its own terms, and ties it, in turn, to the illusionistic capacities of painting.

Comparative study of carved altarpiece forms also supports inferences about the appearance of the proposed altarpiece from which the Philadelphia panels came, based upon the most prevalent traits of such altarpieces. As for format, the most common overall shape for large carved altarpieces is the so-called “inverted ‘T’,” but whether or not a raised center section was present, the lower, main tier, over which the panels would have closed, is almost invariably a horizontal rectangle; the Philadelphia panels together, however, form very nearly a square, so it is likely they were two of four large panels spanning the main tier of the closed altarpiece. As for subject, the altarpiece was probably a narrative cycle with large sculpture groups, the general type being suggested by the partially visible Passion retable depicted beyond the choir screen in the Antwerp Triptych of the Seven Sacraments.

One aspect of the Philadelphia painting that is not typical of carved altarpiece exteriors is the Crucifixion subject; however, the observation by Griet Steyaert that the wing exteriors of the small carved altarpiece now in the Brussels Centre Public d'Action Sociale (CPAS), which show a divided Crucifixion scene reminiscent of the Philadelphia panels, shows that other examples of the subject and form on wing exteriors did exist. If the Philadelphia panels were two of four across, the subject(s) and position of the two lost panels—both to one side, or one to either side of the Philadelphia pair—remains undetermined, though some evidence for the latter arrangement does exist.

The identification of the Philadelphia Crucifixion as wing exteriors of a carved altarpiece introduces the possibility of better-informed analysis and interpretation. Long praised as an independent work, the newly proposed context may clarify the distinction of the painting as an image made to mediate between the exterior world and the higher sanctity of an altarpiece interior, or between private worship and formal ritual. Long appreciated in its own right as a transfixing object of contemplation and devotion, the Philadelphia painting might now be appraised equally for its deeply considered relationship to the sculpture revealed when the wings were opened. In fact, perhaps the greatest achievement of this work, as we may now regard it, is the way it was conceived to serve both its static function—as a powerful devotional image—and its transitional function—as an allusion, foil, and threshold to sculpture.
If, as proposed, these large-scale and boldly composed panels came from a sculptural high altarpiece of extraordinary size, they occupied the face of the altarpiece most constantly on view  and thus were its most dominant imagery. As such, and vital to the potency of the altarpiece as a whole, these panels would have been the conspicuous representation of the artist’s eminence and creative authority over a monumental project, accounting for the inventive composition and, for an altarpiece exterior, an unusually high standard of painting. 

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