Lucas van Leyden: The Passion
Curated by Randi Klebanoff
21 February – 11 April 2010
To view a slideshow of related images, please download and install the latest version of the Adobe Flash Player.
Lucas van Leyden’s Passion series of engravings (1521) depicts fourteen events from the end of the life of Christ. It begins with The Last Supper, when Christ tells his disciples that one of them will betray him, continues with Christ’s trials leading to his crucifixion, and ends with his resurrection. Devotion to the Passion of Christ was at its height in the sixteenth century. The Passion was a popular subject of religious plays, vernacular devotional literature, and ritual recreations at Easter. Printed images of Christ’s Passion aided believers’ private devotion by invoking their empathetic engagement with Christ’s sacrifice.
Lucas van Leyden was unquestionably the most important Netherlandish artist of his day. His prints were sought after not only during his life but also long after his death. A century later, Rembrandt was a keen collector of Lucas’s prints, and was known to have paid high prices for a rare sheet. To supply demand, numerous artists copied his prints, and print sellers reworked his plates to produce further print runs. The Carleton University Art Gallery’s set of Passion engravings is the only one in Canada believed to be from Lucas van Leyden’s own hand.
Sixteenth-century artists used prints to disseminate ideas and compositions. In 1521 van Leyden met the famed German artist Albrecht Dürer and the two exchanged many prints. The Passion, engraved in the same year, is van Leyden’s response to Durer’s prints of the same theme, reinterpreted in terms of his personal vision and style. Van Leyden’s approach to the Passion demonstrates his remarkable gift for narrative, the dramatic concentration and clarity of his compositions, and his virtuosity as a designer and engraver.
In the Passion, Lucas van Leyden frequently departs from conventional depictions to emphasize moral and humanitarian messages. In The Crucifixion, for example, Lucas depicts Christ not dead, but actively entrusting the care of his mother Mary to his beloved disciple John, shifting the focus from death to the responsibilities of love and service in this life. A similar message is conveyed in The Last Supper, where Christ lovingly feeds bread to his betrayer Judas while an apostle in the foreground echoes the act of service to his fellow man. In Christ in Limbo, a father instructs his wife and child on the consequences of sin and the fleetingness of beauty by pointing out a grotesque demon who reaches toward them from Hell. Contemporary campaigns against sodomy are the probable subtext of The Mocking of Christ, where Christ’s tormentor in the right foreground turns his back to Christ while making motions to pull down his breeches.
Lucas’s Passion also gives pious viewers privileged roles in a particular scene. In Christ Crowned with Thorns, the innocence of a small child contrasts with the callousness of Christ’s tormentors. By eating an apple, the child symbolizes the downfall of humankind into sin caused by Adam and Eve’s consumption of the forbidden fruit in Paradise. Put in the position of a witness looking over the child’s shoulder, viewers are prompted to question their complicity in Christ’s degradation. Van Leyden’s placement of the child, like a clue left at the scene of a crime, is typical of the psychological acuity that distinguishes his extraordinary interpretation of the Passion, Christianity’s most important story.