Master of the Aachen Madonna, Crucifixion, colored metalcut, Germany, c. 1460. Boston, MA, Museum of Fine Arts, 51.699

by Nicole Gaudier

Figure 1. Rohan Master 15th century, Rohan Hours: ms. Lat. 9471: fol. 27: Crucifixion  1418-25, Book of Hours, Biblioteque nationale de France

Figure 1. Rohan Master 15th century, Rohan Hours: ms. Lat. 9471: fol. 27: Crucifixion 1418-25, Book of Hours, Biblioteque nationale de France

Figure 2. Anonymous Upper Rhenish engraver, The Crucifixion, Engraving, 87x63mm

Figure 2. Anonymous Upper Rhenish engraver, The Crucifixion, Engraving, 87x63mm

Figure 3. Anonymous from south Germany, Calvary, c. 1460-1470, colored metalcut, 324x208mm (sheet), Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

Figure 3. Anonymous from south Germany, Calvary, c. 1460-1470, colored metalcut, 324x208mm (sheet), Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

This hand-colored metalcut Crucifixion attributed to the Master of the Aachen Madonna includes many symbolic and narrative details common to the depiction of Christ’s crucifixion.[1]  The text serves to connect the viewer’s understanding of the image of Christ on the cross, the “true Body,” to the sacrament of the Eucharist and the devotee’s prayer for salvation. The texts connect to the images through their commentary on the crucial choice that the image poses the viewer: to accept or reject Christ as the son of God.  The image is a devotional work that called through word and symbol for the viewer to reflect on the divinity of Christ and on the Eucharist and its promise of salvation.[2]

In the image, Christ is large and central.  One sees the nails in his hands and feet, the crown of thorns, and halo.  His body hangs as if dead. The scroll over Christ’s cross bears the letters INRI, the initials that refer to the titulus affixed to the cross on the command of Pontius Pilate, in Latin from John 19:19, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).[3] Behind Christ to his left and right are the two thieves. The thieves’ souls, depicted as tiny naked figures, collected on the left by an angel and on the right by a scaly green demon; this depiction of the thieves is not unique. For instance, the 15th century Rohan Hours(Figure 1) also depicts the thieves visited by angels and demons. Although the thieves are common detailed representations of the Crucifixion, they obtain special significance in this metalcut.  The good thief on the left (Christ’s right) and the bad thief on the right (Christ’s left) embody the viewer’s spiritual choice between heaven and hell. The penitent thief holds a speech scroll containing his words in Luke 23:42, “Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.”[4] The bad thief’s scroll reads, in mocking disbelief, from Luke 23:39, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.”[5] This emphasis on the good and bad thief, identified by their apocryphal names, Dismas and Gesmas, extends to the poem inscribed along the left, top, and right edges of the work: “Unequal in their merits, three bodies hang on the tree, Dismas and Gesmas, and in the middle – God’s Might. Desmas is saved and Gesmas is damned.”[6]  This poem bluntly reminds the reader that the thief who believed in Christ was saved while the one who mocked him was not. Many variations of this poem, which may have had magical or amuletic associations, circulated during, and after, the medieval era.[7]

Elsewhere in the image, also emphasized are other figures through speech scrolls that relate them to the thieves and the themes of salvation and judgment. Longinus, the centurion mounted on a horse to Christ’s left, is identified by his scroll. Somewhat unusually, he is not portrayed as the spear bearer who pierces Christ’s side but as a knightly on-looker. As in a fifteenth century Rhenish engraving of the Crucifixion (Figure 2), he holds a scroll that bears the same text from Mark 15:39: “Indeed this man was the son of God.”[8] This text aligns the centurion with the good thief as one who is among the first to recognize Christ’s divinity and the first convert to Christianity. All of the remaining figures with speech scrolls reject Christ and even mock him. The scrolls of the other bystanders mock Christ through the words of the Pharisees and disbelievers from Matthew 27 and Mark 15. These witnesses were given the chance to recognize Christ, but failed to believe in him.  The quotations on these speech scrolls not only refer to scripture but, they may also be references to the Passion plays, or masses, that were performed, or read, where people read the parts of these figures in the gospels.

The bottom of the image depicts figures that are traditionally more central in depictions of the Crucifixion.  Christ’s mother Mary, Saint John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, and another woman, perhaps the Virgin Mary’s sister, Mary of Cleophas. The Virgin has fainted into John’s arms, which common to depictions of the Crucifixion.  Mary Magdalene, as is typical, is depicted as young, with light hair, and is holding on to the bottom of Christ’s cross. Another woman is grieving while seated to the right of the Virgin Mary and John.  Although the holy figures at the bottom of the image are traditionally important to depictions of the Crucifixion, they appear less central in our view here, in part because of the image’s emphasis on the thieves and other figures who offer the viewer choices between faith and rejection of Christ.  The holy figures position at the bottom of the image also serves to draw our attention to the lengthy text on the bottom margin of the print.  In fact, Virgin Mary’s dangling left arm and bowed head seem to direct our attention to the inscribed text.

The inscription at the bottom is a fourteenth-century Eucharistic prayer called the Ave Verum Corpus. The poem begins, “Hail, true body,” and concludes with a petition, “O sweet Jesus, O pious Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me.”[9]  It was sung in the Mass of the medieval era during the elevation of the host during consecration and also during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The inclusion of texts below a main scene was not rare in medieval prints, the German colored metalcut (Figure 3) also contains a crucifixion scene above a related text.  In the print, the text serves to connect in the viewer’s understanding the image of Christ on the cross, the “true Body,” to the sacrament of the Eucharist and the devotee’s prayer for salvation.


[1] The title “Master of the Aachen Madonna” refers to an unknown German artist who was active from the mid to late fifteenth-century. This artist made various works in the city of Aachen, Germany. For more information on painted prints, refer to Susan Dackerman’s “Painted Prints in Germany and the Netherlands.” In Painted Prints The Revelation of Color, 9-47. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

[2] For more information on religion and devotion in Europe, refer to  Robert Norman Swanson’s book: Religion and devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995 and also  Martha Wolff’s article  “An Image of Compassion: Dieric Bouts’s Sorowing Madonna.” The Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 15, no. 2 (1989): 112-125+174-175.

[3]All four gospels mention this inscription but the exact initials correspond to only John 19:19. The Holy Bible: Vulgate Version gives the latin text for this verse as “Scripsit autem et titulum Pilatus, et posuit super crucem. Erat autem scriptum: Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Judaeorum.” It gives the full English text as “And Pilate wrote a title also, and he put it upon the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

[4] The scroll says: “domine memento mei du veneris in regnu t”  which refers to Luke 23:42. The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims version gives the latin text for this verse as “domine memento mei cum veneris in regnum tuum.” It gives the full English text as  “And he said to Christ: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.”

[5] The scroll says: “sit u es xps saluu fac te ipm et nos” which refers to Luke 23:39. The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims version gives the latin text for this verse as “si tu es christis, salvum fac temetipsum et nos.” It gives the full English text as  “And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him ,saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.”

[6] The latin text of this poem is:  “imparibus meritis tria pendet corpora ramis dismas / et gesmas In medio divini potestas dismas saluatur gesmas vero dampnificatur.” The poem translates to: Unequal in their merits, three bodies hang on the tree, Dismas and Gesmas, and in the middle – God’s Might. Desmas is saved and Gesmas is damned.”

[7] See for instance, the association of the poem with a charm to prevent pain in Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (New York: Dover, 1988), 55.

[8] The scroll says: “Vere hic homo Filius Dei erat” which refers to Mark 15:30. The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims version gives the latin text for this verse as “Videns autem centurio, qui ex adverso stabat, quia sic clamans expirasset, ait: Vere hic homo Filius Dei erat.” It gives the full English text as “And the centurion who stood over against him, seeing that crying out in this manner he had given up the ghost, said: Indeed this man was the son of God.”

[9] The latin text is:  “Ave verum corpus Bottom:  ave veru corp domi nri ihu xpi natu ex maria virgine vere passum et ymmola / tu in cruce pro homie cui latus perforatu vere fluxit sagwie esto michi pgustatu imor / tis examie o dulcis o pie o ihu xpe fili marie misère michi gui passes es pro me amen.” The English translation is “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, who having truly suffered, was sacrificed on the cross for mankind, whose pierced side flowed with water and blood: May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet] in the trial of death.O sweet Jesus, O pious Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen.”

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