John Singer Sargent

Preliminary Relief of Crucifixion

1897–9

Medium
Bronze and oak
Dimensions
Object: 1118 x 787 x 89 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by A.G. Ross in accordance with the wishes of the late Robert Ross through the Art Fund 1919
Reference
N03412

Display caption

The painter of society portraits, J.S.Sargent, was commissioned in 1890 to design murals for the new Public Library building in Boston, Massachusetts. These were a complete departure from his usual work. He chose as theme the history of religion. For this he used a variety of historical styles, Egyptian, Byzantine and classical, and incorporated relief sculpture and friezes of lettering. This Crucifix is a small model for a part of a wall showing 'The Dogma of Redemption'. Figures of Adam and Eve at either side of the cross collect Christ's blood, and below his feet is a traditional symbol of the resurrection, a pelican feeding its young with its blood. The cornice corresponds to part of the Library building.

Gallery label, August 2004

Catalogue entry

N03412 CRUCIFIX c. 1899

Not inscribed.
Bronze relief, 44×31×31 1/2 (112×79×9).
Presented by A. G. Ross, in accordance with the wishes of the late Robert Ross, through the National Art-Collections Fund 1919.
Coll: Presumably given direct to Robert Ross by the artist.
Exh: On loan to the Tate Gallery from 1914 until presented in 1919.
Lit: Downes, 1925, p.58; Charteris, 1927, pp.166–7; Mount, 1955, pp.227–8; Mount, 1957, pp.189–90.
Repr: W. Roche, S.J., Mysteries of the Mass in Reasoned Prayers, 1925, as frontispiece.

Almost certainly a cast from one of the smaller, preliminary models for the Crucifix in Boston Public Library. This is part of the decoration on the theme of ‘The Dogma of the Redemption’, covering the south end of the Sargent Hall, and facing the frieze of ‘The Prophets’ and the lunettes of ‘The Children of Israel under the hands of their oppressors’. It is one of the most ambitious of his attempts at sculpture and was begun in either late February or early March 1899. Mount (1957, p.189) quotes a letter from the American sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, dated 12 April 1899, in which he refers approvingly to Sargent's model of the ‘Crucifix’ brought to him for advice about enlarging it. Another letter, written by Henry James, dated 12 November 1899 (Mount, 1957, p.190), seems to imply that work on the final version was by then completed.

Charteris, loc. cit., mentions that the artist gave ‘small reproductions’ to a few of his friends such as Lady Lewis, whose cast was lent by J. M. de Navarro to the Sargent exhibition at Birmingham, 1964 (96, erroneously described as inscribed). Another cast, also 29×19 1/4 in., was given by Paul Furse as a wedding-present (letter from Dame Rachel Crowdy-Thornhill, 4 October 1954) and is now in Bristol Art Gallery. No.3412, though larger, resembles these casts in every detail and was presumably acquired by Robert Ross in the same manner. In addition Sargent exhibited a ‘Crucifix’ at the R.A. in 1901 (1792), described by Frank Rinder as ‘large’ (Art Journal, 1901, p.182); in 1916 this belonged to Charles Deering of Chicago. A cast of what seems to be the final model, about nine feet high and differing very little from the Boston work, was given to the R.A. in 1926 by Miss Sargent and Mrs Ormond; it is now in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral.

A comparison of No.3412 with the final ‘Crucifix’ at Boston shows several important differences. The Boston sculpture is in polychrome and Christ wears a halo; His hands are shown more open and flattened against the Cross. The serpent's head appears under Christ's feet, instead of being nailed through the head over the feet. The tail of the serpent curls round the feet of Adam, who is now bearded. The tablet surrounding the Cross (which is of Byzantine form in all the versions) has a moulded edge and bears the inscription ‘Remissa Sunt Peccata Mundi’ above the cross-piece. The stem of the Cross also has a decorative moulding on either side. In the Tate version a short section of the masonry cornice, against which the final work is placed, has been reproduced in bronze. The motif of the pelican was considerably changed in the Boston and St Paul's Cathedral versions where the bird is shown in three-quarter view with wings partially spread, her head bowed and pecking at her breast, with a group of three fledgelings feeding on her blood.

The iconography of this ‘Crucifix’, which shows Adam and Eve receiving the blood of Christ on the Cross, is said by Charteris (op. cit., p.167) to have been adapted from the motifs in the thirteenth-century stained-glass windows at Angers and Bourges cathedrals. Sargent's attention was drawn to these prototypes by Emile Mâle, a copy of whose book Religious Art in France: Thirteenth Century was in his possession.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, II