Guilia Della Fiore (julianadeflorey) wrote,
Guilia Della Fiore

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Current Project: The Magnus Crucifix

About three years ago, a friend asked me to paint him a crucifix "sort of like Durer."  We agreed on a price for the piece and I began to think about how to paint it.  I had no idea it would turn out to be the most difficult piece, period or otherwise, I had ever painted. OK, time passes and I poke around in books, thinking.  Years pass. I realize, if I could really paint like Durer I'd be famous already.  I'll never be able to do this, and why did I ever think I could?

I don't think anyone understood what I set out to do:  not copy a painting by Durer or anyone else, but attempt to paint a picture as if I were living about 1500 in Germany, a student of Durer or some other German painter of the time.  I showed "Magnus" examples of German paintings of the late 15th and early 16th century:  Durer [1471-1528] and Grunewald [1470-1528] especially.  He didn't like the Grunewald Christ, tortured and covered with cuts and bruises, and he didn't want an emaciated, Gothic Christ like the Netherlandish painters would have done.  

Problem:  Durer, although he did several woodcuts of Christ on the Cross, never did paint a crucifix in color [exception:  Adoration of the Trinity, which shows the figure of Christ vastly foreshortened, hanging in the sky with enormous feet.  So he painted one, but I didn't really like it].  

The other German painters of the time, including Cranach, painted some truly awful crucifixes, including one of a horrible fat bishop kneeling in front of a tiny Christ figure, under a sky which appears to be about 10 feet off the ground. 

And I didn't feel up to tackling a crucifix with too many figures milling about, soldiers on horseback, etc, even though Magnus would have loved that.  But I know my limits.  I got online and printed out every crucifixion scene I could find from 1450 to 1600.  In 1450 the Jesus figures are wiry dudes who look like long-distance runners.  By 1600 the Jesus figures are beefy and muscular, standing in relaxed contraposto.  Who would I ever get to pose?  I don't know anyone who works out enough to be the 1600 Jesus.   All the men in my family are pretty Goth looking.  Durer's figures seem about in the middle. 

This was my first problem:  finding a suitable example for the figure of Christ, and find someone to pose.  I ended up getting a nameless someone to pose for me by getting up on a ladder and stretching his arms out.  He complained mightily that the pose was impossible to hold and painful to boot.  However, with his long arms and legs and extreme slenderness, he made a super perfect Gothic Christ.  Too Gothic.  I looked over the photos and tried to figure out if I could muscle him up a bit -- send him to Julia's Instant Gym, as I call it, to make him a bit more Dureresque. 

Finally, I gave up, and got another man to pose for me, who had more bunchy defined muscles.  But when I looked over those photos, I realized his arms and legs were short!  He didn't look like Jesus at all!  I felt embarrassed -- I had talked two grown men into undressing and prancing around my living room in their undies, and I had nothing to show for it.  I went to the nearest Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, not to seek forgiveness, but to take pictures one Sunday afternoon of the life-size crucifix over the altar.  Due to the low light, the pictures were blurry, and the figure seemed stiff, like a statue.  Because it was a statue.  Drat.  I put all the pictures away for a while and went back to my books.  Drat.

I already had a gessoed board on hand that I intended to use, about 12''x18", one that I had gessoed a number of years ago.  It was a bit on the narrow side, and as I looked through several books, including a book on Matthias Grunewald, and another on van der Weyden (a somewhat earlier Netherlandish painter, but I figured a German painter could easily have seen and been influenced by him and  I needed van der Weyden because he painted oom boodles of crucifixes), I found a couple of very simple compositions that seemed to fit the bill proportionally.  A van der Weyden crucifix showed St. John and Mary standing in front of the cross, a cloth of honor handing on a wall behind the crucifix.  The composition is very shallow.  And a Grunewald, the Karlsruhe Crucifix, seemed almost to copy the van der Weyden composition of almost 100 years earlier, although with a deeper field.  Maybe I could change the figure of Christ into something more Dureresque, and use the composition of the Grunewald or the van der Weyden.  I began sketching with this in mind.  

I got out all the photos I had made of all three would-be Jesuses.  The ones of the first young man were the best by far so I went with them for the time being.  There was no question of getting anyone to pose live for me for the length of time it would have taken.  I made a simple, charcoal drawing, very gestural, of one of the photos, not trying to add muscle.  Then I decided I didn't like it so I made a more careful drawing of the crucifix in the church.  I used an anatomy book to carefully define every muscle group.  It took quite a while to realize that the reason the statue looked stiff was that it was too relaxed a pose, as if the person who posed had been standing casually on the ground with the hip in contraposto and the arms outstretched.  On the other hand, the photos I had made looked positively tortured.  I made a third drawing, using the defined muscles from the statue and adding them to the earlier drawings of the young man.  I redrew it several times until I felt satisfied with the pose.  Not perfect, but better.  

At this point, I was still going back and forth about what painting to use as my main inspiration for the composition.  I finally settled on the Grunewald. 

Well, more tomorrow when I figure out how to upload pics.  I'll check on measurements too.   

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