The fact that the crucifixion in the Casanatense Compendium
depicts the Virgin and St Francis can be explained by its trecentist and Tuscan context brimming with Franciscan religiousness.
The most commonplace or “narrative” crucifixion in the Italian Trecento
period, was multitudinous because of the numerous figures – some from the Gospels – that accompany Christ on the cross. In addition to the Virgin and St John, there are also holy women and a few holy men and standing opposite these figures, who are usually located to the right of Christ and are his disciples and followers, we can see to the left of Christ, a group of Jews and Roman soldiers.
Besides this crucifixion, which has been described as complex and multitudinous, there is also a more simple style of crucifixion in which Christ is accompanied by just the Virgin and another figure in a meditative pose, occupying the place traditionally reserved for St John the Evangelist, at the foot of the cross parallel to the Virgin. There is a frieze by Cimabue (c. 1277-1280, superior church of St Francis of Assisi, where the saint was buried) which portrays St Francis kneeling on Mount Golgotha, deep in prayer and leaning his face upon the wood of the cross. Another frieze situated in the right wing of the western transept of the lower church of Assisi, painted in about 1320-1330 by followers of Giotto, features several Franciscan monks, kneeling in prayer before Christ on the cross. Penitence is an important part of the Franciscan devotion to the cross and it is imbued with the idea that it is the sins of humanity that caused the Redeemer to suffer.
It is within this Italian and Franciscan context of meditation upon the cross that the crucifixion in the Casanatense Compendium
must be interpreted since its small number of figures (Christ on the cross, the Virgin and St Francis) is more in keeping with a symbolic and mystic finality of the tree of the cross.
The Christ in the Casanatense scroll is nailed to a cross situated at the top of a small hill (Golgotha) which has a hollow with a skull inside. This is the tomb of Adam, the presence of which stems from the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans (5:12-19) and the 1st to the Corinthians (15, 21, 45-47). These texts by St Paul are reminiscent of the juxtaposition between the first and second Adam, the new and old Adam, derived from the ancient legends that link the tomb of Adam with mount Golgotha. These legends appeared in apocryphal scriptures that were well known in the Middle Ages.
This link between Adam and Christ, and between the tree of Paradise and the cross of Christ, can be understood better if we recall some of the legends about the cross. God ordered Seth, one of Adam’s sons, to take three sprigs from the tree of life and place them under Adam’s tongue when he died. A tree grew upon Adam’s tomb and its wood was used to make the cross upon which Christ was crucified. According to another legend, Adam was buried on Golgotha, in the exact place where the cross of Christ was to be planted and Seth heard the voice of Adam saying that his own skull would be bathed in the blood of the Word of God ".
Ana Domínguez Rodríguez
Universidad Complutense de Madrid