Georges Rouault Christ on the Cross

Georges Rouault Christ on the Cross

In one of Rouault’s crucifixion scenes, painted around 1920, the dark is one again a fundamental feature. The Crucifixion could almost be taking place at night. The sky is dark, the land is dark and the outline of the Cross is black. This serves to focus the eye of the viewer on the unearthly light of Christ’s body and the face of those by the Cross. The one shown here however, has streaks of light in the sky and all the figures are illuminated. The sky also has red in it. This could indicate sunset. A sunset might indicate the life of Christ going down into the darkness of death, but with the red holding out hope of the ‘delights’ to come (Red sky at night, Shepherd’s delight). Or, on the other hand, if this is sunrise, this is a prefiguring of the dawn of Easter morning, without forgetting the death of Christ as a judgement on the world (Red sky in the morning, Shepherd’s warning). Although the sky is streaked with light the figures are in fact lit from the front, from behind the viewer. It is from that light that the faces of the three figures beside the cross and the figure of Christ on it are lit up. In contrast to the 1920 painting described above, this greater light expresses a serene hope and joy.

The figures on either side of the Cross are absorbed in Christ’s suffering in their own way. To the right, John raises his neck and face ardently in the direction of Jesus. Beside him, Mary the mother of Jesus, in her traditional blue, bends her head in sorrow. To the left, another figure, perhaps Mary Magdalene, kneels in devout prayer. The intention of these three figures helps to draw the onlooker into the picture and to make their own response. The head of Jesus, slightly on one side, with the eyes half closed, looks down gently and questioningly at the onlooker. This is not just a painting for public art, to be viewed from afar. It is the artist’s deeply felt personal response to the Crucifixion which in turn seems to require a personal response from the viewer.

Rouallt said this of his Art:

Art, the art I aspire to, will be the most profound, the most complete, the most moving expression of what man feels when he finds himself face to face with himself and with humanity. Art should be a disinherited, passionate confession, the translation of the inner life, as it used to be in the old days in the hands of our admirable anonymous Frenchman who sculpted the figures on the cathedrals.

3 thoughts on “Georges Rouault Christ on the Cross

  1. The red figure will be John, the Beloved Disciple. That he seems to ‘rest’ his head on the arm of the crucified Lord is an interesting detail that recalls how during the Last Supper John lay his head on the Lord’s chest and seems very tenderly to say here, ‘He dies for me’.

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