A depiction of the suffering Christ can inspire feelings of gratitude, pity or remorse. Thus is intends to deepen our love of God. Penny Warden

Zurbaran: The Crucified Christ and a Painter

ArtWay Visual Meditation March 4, 2018

Francisco de Zurbaran: The Crucified Christ and a Painter

The Artist and Christ

by Beat Rink

A few months ago I chanced on this masterwork in an exhibition in the Art Museum in Basel with works from the Prado. It is one of those pictures that exert fascination at first sight. The observer notices at once that an important statement is being made here. But what statement?  

When one studies the picture more closely, it presents a number of questions: why is a painter standing there alone in front of the cross? Where is Mary and where are all the other people who are depicted in every crucifixion scene? Why is Christ smaller in relation to the painter? Why is no wound visible in his side or blood on his feet? Why is there no picture to be seen on which the painter is working?  

Only one answer is really possible here: this crucifixion scene is itself the picture the painter is working on. The unused red on the palate and the brush suggest that his next step is to give Christ his wounds, the wounds that are still missing in the picture.

And this in turn explains the inner attitude of the painter: with his right hand, which is about to pick up the brush, he makes a mea culpa gesture. In this way he admits that he himself is guilty; in more than one way he gives Christ his wounds. This recalls the St. John Passion, where the chorus sings this:  

Wer hat dich so geschlagen,
Who has struck you in this way,
Mein Heil, und dich mit Plagen
my saviour, and with torments
So übel zugericht'?
treated you so harshly?
Du bist ja nicht ein Sünder
You are indeed not a sinner
Wie wir und unsre Kinder,
as we and our children are,
Von Missetaten weißt du nicht.
of wrongdoing you know nothing.

Listen here:

Ich, ich und meine Sünden,
I, I, and my sins,
Die sich wie Körnlein finden
that are as many as grains
Des Sandes an dem Meer,
of sand by the sea
Die haben dir erreget
have provoked for you
Das Elend, das dich schläget,
the misery that has struck you
Und das betrübte Marterheer.
and the host of troubles and torment. 

This painting (as does Bach’s chorale) speaks of how each one of us is guilty of the death of Christ. We cannot put the blame on others. The gesture therefore expresses the artist’s remorse. And what is expressed in the pious facial expression (almost over-pious for today’s taste)? I see in it a deep love and veneration for Christ. At the same time the painter seems to say, “I must apply the brush now and paint the wounds. As a guilty person, I cannot do otherwise.”

The painting thus goes far beyond a mere representation of the crucifixion of Christ. It speaks about the artist himself. And indirectly it puts a question to the observer: how about you, do you also see yourself as one of the culprits or do you stay at a refined, perhaps aesthetic distance, from the crucified Christ? In my opinion this work manages to bring about a direct connection between art and the reality of faith. 


Francisco de Zurbaran: The Crucified Christ and a Painter, c. 1650, oil on canvas, 105 x 84 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664). Aside from producing a number of history paintings, portraits and still lifes, the Spanish Baroque painter Francisco de Zurbarán devoted his career almost entirely to religious works. Due to his preference for chiaroscuro his style was often compared to that of Caravaggio. The artist’s favorite subjects were religious figures – apostles, saints, monks and madonnas – posed against neutral backgrounds. Zurbarán paid particular attention to the natural effect of lighting and the details of dress. He was applauded for his ability to combine realism with mysticism, bringing a degree of accessibility to spiritual otherworldliness.

Beat Rink was born in Basel, Switzerland. He has two Master degrees from the University of Basel in literature/history and theology and is an ordained pastor of the Swiss Reformed Church. He co-founded Crescendo ( and Arts+ ( He works as a full-time leader of Crescendo international. He gives lectures and has written several books. To read an article by Beat Rink about Christianity and art, click here.

This meditation was first published as TUNE IN 249. The TUNE INs are weekly spiritual reflections for artists in English and German, published by Crescendo, which can be ordered here for free or go to Facebook.  



1. ARTWAY – Last week we posted a blog by Rachel Hostetter Smith about a group of North American and African artists from six African countries that met in South Africa for two weeks of intensive engagement with South Africa in 2013. It resulted in the traveling exhibit Between the Shadow & the Light: An Exhibition Out of South Africa. Click here

* In the Music & Art section we posted a meditative video for Lent combining the song Beautiful Scandalous Night with a painting by Vlasta Knezovic. Click here

2. INDIA – The Art for Change Foundation is excited to announce this year's International Artist Residency 2018. The artist residency is an annual 2-week international residency run by the Art for Change Foundation, a New Delhi based arts organisation with a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth. The residency is designed for you to engage with questions of human dignity in a cross-cultural setting, working alongside a community of talented and diverse fellow artists. Dates: November 18 - December 2, 2018; Place: New Delhi, India; Theme: Personhood; Deadline for applications: May 15, 2018. Apply by email, with CV, Artist Bio, and six of your strongest works to date.;;

3. CANADA - 2 July – 13 July, 13.30 – 16.30 h, Regent College, 5800 University Blvd, Vancouver: a course by Amanda Russell-Jones: Afterlives of Biblical Women in Art, Literature, & Culture. Regent College. The women of the Bible have lived on outside the Bible, reflected in art, music, literature, and popular culture. Their stories have provided a lens through which to categorize, exhort, and chastise women ever since. Examine the afterlives of Eve, Mary, Hagar, Deborah, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, Judith, Susanna, and others. Find out why Delilah became the subject of a popular song. In exploring the historical reflections of biblical women, consider how the mirror held up to these women became distorted and at what cost.

4. THE VATICAN – Read about the words the Pope spoke to the Diakonia of Beauty during a recent symposium in Rome: Click here

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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