Tag Archives: Duccio

Palm Sunday (C) Luke: 19:28-40, 22:14-23:56

Frederick Etchells, The Entry into Jerusalem, 1912, The Charleston Trust

Frederick Etchells and his sister Jessie were close to members of the Bloomsbury group. They stayed with Vanessa Bell at Asheham, around the time of this painting and it may have come into the possession of Vanessa Bell then and moved with her to Charleston farmhouse in 1916. He was one of the artists who became involved in the Omega Workshops in 1913, organised by Roger Fry with a number of the Bloomsbury artists, designing and painting furniture and ceramics. Etchells also worked on the murals for the Borough Polytechnic in 1911 with Grant and Fry, painting one of Hampstead heath, and he continued to be close to Fry even when he later exhibited with the new Vorticist group, when his work took on more angular and abstract characteristics.

Etchells had trained at the Central School of Art but then spent a period in Paris, like Duncan Grant, where he came into contact with Picasso, Braque and Modigliani and other artists behind the innovations of Post Impressionism. His paintings show their influence. Etchells later became an architect after the war and it was he who advised Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant on the design and fitting of the wall paintings for St Michael’s Church, Berwick.

Palm Sunday’s readings are in two parts. The account of the entry into Jerusalem and the Passion are both taken from the Gospel of Luke. The Gospels, as Gerald Sloyan has pointed out, do not show all the detail, only what is important: ” Christ’s suffering and death were early transposed into the theological key of mythos“. Early Renaissance painted versions of this and other Passion scenes, such as those of Giotto and Duccio, mirror this in their spared down treatment of the theme. The artists of Post Impressionism sought to recover this approach to painting and set aside the emphasis on likeness and appearance since the Renaissance. A scene from the Passion narratives, where the evangelist has similarly limited his material to what is essential, provided an ideal vehicle by which to use the design to convey meaning, which Etchells does here in several ways.

Etchells has taken the traditional theme The Entry of Christ in Jerusalem and transposed it to an indeterminate shoreline. The shore, a frequent setting in 20th century art, is not only a place of leisure in modern life, but also it is something pared down and primeval, too. It makes an ideal setting for the cosmic event which is about to unfold as the Messiah begins the passage to New Creation. The detail is spare in Etchells painting, just as it is in Giotto and Duccio’s paintings which Etchells was almost certainly familiar with. What is important is not showing a likeness of reality but only essential elements. The figure of Christ moves from right to left parallel to the picture plane, greeted by several pairs and groups of three figures either side, some waving palm frond, those in pairs moving in rhythm. These stylised figures are reminiscent of the figures of Matisse in the Dance I. The treatment of the figures is very like the mosaic of the Magi in Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo, which Grant had recently visited

Christ is riding into the setting sun, made apparent by the long blue shadows which fall behind the donkey. Christ will pass through darkness and death to become himself, the new life and light. Indeed, the blue halo around his head seems like the sun on the horizon.

This painting shows Etchells experimenting with the techniques of Post Impressionist artists (which in turn look back to Manet), in the flat planes and expressive use of colour. Etchells knew many of these artists and their paintings from Paris, but Fry had organised two exhibitions of Post Impressionist works at the Grafton galleries in London, in 1910 and in 1912, when Matisse’s Dance I and Red Studio were shown as well the plaster maquette for Back I. and works by Seurat whose le Cirque seems particularly influential. His use of the Golden Section in the painting and angles of 30 and 60 degrees, which were particularly harmonious, according to the theories of Charles Henry, published in ‘Cercle Chromatique’ can be seen also in Etchells’ work, designed according to harmonic proportions.

In Seurat’s Le Cirque, the spectators passivity is contrasted with the action and skill of the circus troupe. In Etchell’s painting, the spectators cheer and greet Christ with movement and graceful gesture, but there’s a similar contrast set up as Christ the solitary figure, on a donkey, moves between the figures waving on the way to the cross and to resurrection


Christ the King, Last Sunday of Year B: John 18: 33-37

This Sunday the reading is for the final week of the year and does not come from Mark, but is chosen from John’s Gospel to fit the theme of the feast, which is Christ the Universal King. The chioce of gospel fits the understanding of Christ’s kingship being distinct and different from worldly kingship, at the same time situating it in the Passion and showing that its roots are in this action of God’s love. The panel we can see above, which shows the passage from the Gospel, is taken from the Maesta, originally on the high altar of Siena cathedral, one of the most ambitious altarpieces ever painted. Duccio painted the Maesta with a team of assistants between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in a solemn procession in the Cathedral. The Maesta is two sided. The front is Mariological with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and of Christ’s birth around the central image of Mary seated in majesty with the Christ Child. The back, with its scenes of the Passion is Christological. This was seen by the clergy when seated around the chancel for the praying of the Office and also for the celebration of Mass.

This scene of Christ before Pilate for the Second Time is taken from the end of the top left row of the rear of the altarpiece. Duccio uses a conflation of the gospel accounts. The sequence of panels depicting the passion is to be read boustrephedonically, that is up, along, down and up and so on, with the sequence ascending. Duccio was careful to arrange the design of images in each panel to fit the overall design and movement of the narrative and to give a sense of balance so the scene moves from left to right. In this painting, from the far left of the work, the artist positions a large body of figures- the Pharisees and soldiers, on the left, behind Jesus as he faces Pilate, who wears the robe given him by Herod to ridicule him from the scene below.

One is struck by the isolation of Jesus, by the clusters of the Pharisees and soldiers who both act as single masses. Just as in Leonardo’s painting of the Last Supper the artist shows the singularity of Jesus and the movement away from Christ in the  groups of apostles, here we can see Duccio create a similar force. He clusters and positions the groups both close to but distinct from Jesus, fearful but, perhaps, deep down, curious about this figure. For what he is to do is something beyond human comprehension, and the strength and grace needed to do so unimaginable, but which shows love even beyond persecution.

Duccio seems to show Jesus leading humanity, albeit hesitantly, towards a different set of values from those of Pilate and the wordly power of the Roman Empire, towards kingship as service and love even at great cost.