To be honest, dear reader, it might have taken me a minute to figure out that Vasily Vereshchagin’s 1887 painting depicts the crucifixion if it weren’t for the fairly self-explanatory title: Crucifixion by the Romans.
(The three crucified figures on the right might, I suppose, have been a tip-off.)
But the scene has none of the usual hallmarks: not only has Christ been relegated to an edge of the painting, but his cross stands no taller, no farther forward, than either of the thieves. His hair obscures his face, and instead of an artful path of blood from the spear-wound in his side, he—like his two fellows—drips blood down his arms and sides, where it soaks into the white cloth at his waist.
Even his mourners, far from being able to stand arrayed at the base of the cross, stand at the back of the crowd with the viewer (on the opposite side of the canvas from him).
By departing so drastically from the usual portrayal, though, Vereshchagin producing a striking commentary on, not just the past, but the present.
Christie’s writes, of Crucifixion and two other paintings in a series Vereschchagin did on capital punishment in three powerful empires: “[e]ach work symbolically illustrates the moment of the greatest ethical test each empire had faced, lamenting the brutality of the state while poignantly depicting the unchanging humanity that connects people and populations across vast expanses of time and geographical territory.”
Given that context, it makes sense that Christ is pushed to the side, while the crowd around him is depicted with archeological accuracy.
It isn’t about him—it’s about the Roman empire. And, by proxy, the modern empires of the 19th century.