Bacon made paintings related to the Crucifixion at pivotal moments in his career, which is why these key works are gathered together in this room. The paradox of an atheist choosing a subject laden with Christian significance was not lost on Bacon, but he claimed, ‘as a non-believer, it was just an act of man’s behaviour’.
Here the instincts of brutality and fear combine with a deep fascination with the ritual of sacrifice. Bacon had already made a very individual Crucifixion in 1933 before returning to the subject with his breakthrough triptych Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion in 1944. This is a key precursor to later themes and compositions, containing the bestial distortion of human figures within the triptych format. These monstrous creatures displace the traditional saints and Bacon later related them to the Eumenides – the vengeful Furies in Greek mythology.
In resuming the theme in the 1960s, especially in 1962 as the culmination of his first Tate exhibition, Bacon used references to Giovanni Cimabue’s Crucifixion 1272–4, to introduce a more explicitly violent vision. Speaking after completing the third triptych in 1965 he simply stated: ‘Well, of course, we are meat, we are potential carcasses.’