The life of our Lord, which began in the Bethlehem manger, culminated on the cross of Mount Calvary. In our picture we see the Man of Sorrows in his last moments of suffering. How it came about that he was crucified is fully related by the four evangelists.[19]

[19] St. Matthew, chapters xxvi. and xxvii.; St. Mark, chapters xiv. and xv.; St. Luke, chapters xxii. and xxiii.; St. John, chapters xviii. and xix.

For three years he had gone about among the people, healing the sick, comforting the sorrowing, and preaching the good tidings of the kingdom. His blameless life was a constant reproach to hypocrites and evil doers. The priests were jealous of his popularity and hated him for his rebukes. As the feast of the Passover drew near, they sought how they might kill him.

Judæa was at that time a province of the great Roman empire, and the civil authority was vested in the governor, Pontius Pilate, and a body of Roman soldiery. The Romans, however, did not interfere much with the affairs of the Jews, and there was little trouble in carrying out a plot. A formal charge against Jesus was made by false witnesses, and he was arrested as a common criminal. After being examined by the high priest, he was led to the governor for trial. "And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ, a king."

Pilate now took him within his palace for a private interview, and could find no fault with him. Nor did King Herod, to whom the case was referred, differ from the governor as to the prisoner's innocence. Pilate therefore appealed to the people in behalf of Jesus, but a multitude of angry voices shouted, "Crucify him!" "Crucify him!" "And so, Pilate, willing to content the people ... delivered Jesus ... to be crucified." He was crucified, as we know, between two thieves, and over his cross was the superscription written by Pilate, in three languages, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."

Seven times, while he hung upon the cross, did the suffering Saviour speak aloud. "Father, forgive them," was his first exclamation, "for they know not what they do." His next words were to the thief on one side, who begged to be remembered when Jesus should come into His own: "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise," was the reply. Then his thoughts turned lovingly to his mother, who stood with John by the cross. "Woman, behold thy son," he said to her, indicating John. Then turning to John, he added, "Behold thy mother." A moment of agony followed, when he cried, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" After this, he said, "I thirst," and a soldier held to his lips a sponge wet with vinegar. As the end drew near came the words, "It is finished," and at last, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."

Antwerp Museum

In Van Dyck's picture we see nothing of the surroundings of the Crucifixion—the Roman soldiers, the curious crowd, the sorrowing friends, or the crucified thieves. Only the solitary figure of Jesus, nailed to the cross, is lifted against the strange dark sky. For three hours, as we read, there was darkness over all the land, followed immediately, after the death of Jesus, by a great earthquake. This is the moment when the storm-clouds are gathering over the face of the sun, causing its light to gleam luridly through the thick covering. The cross is rudely built of two beams in the form which is called a Latin cross. A fluttering scroll at the top of the upright beam carries the accusation "The King of the Jews."

The garments of Jesus had been stripped from his body and divided among four soldiers. He now hangs naked upon the cross save a small strip of cloth knotted about his loins, the loose ends hanging at one side. The body is somewhat slender and delicately modelled, but firm and supple as of one in the fulness of manhood. The hair falls in dishevelled locks about the face, and a mysterious light shines above the head.

As we look at the picture, each one must decide for himself what moment in the great drama is illustrated. From the expression of suffering on the countenance we judge that the end is approaching. From the lifted face and open mouth we see that the sufferer communes with his Father.

The Crucifixion is the saddest subject a painter could choose, yet notwithstanding this, it has been one of the most important subjects in Christian art. Van Dyck painted it many times, and expressed, as we see here, a deep sense of the tragic nature of the scene. Yet he always avoided those harrowing details which make some of the pictures of the older masters too painful to contemplate. For this reason his crucified Christ has been chosen as the model for the Crucifixion scene in the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau.

We may see how wide was the range of our artist's gifts, which extended from such joyous pictures as the Rest in Egypt to a theme so solemn as the Crucifixion.