• Jeanette Lewis

Master of the Blue Crucifixes

Updated: Sep 30



sweeping brush strokes of medieval painting
Sweeping brush strokes used by the Master of the Blue Crucifixes.

The above image is from a crucifix painted by the Master of the Blue Crucifixes. It was discovered by an art collector in the 1800's who rescued it from a convent garbage skip! Little did the sisters realise it was painted in the 13th century; perhaps they were more used to polished Victorian artworks. As a processional crucifix, both sides were painted so that it could be viewed by those in front and back of the procession. The back painting has since deteriorated but the front painting survived and resides at the basilica of St. Francis of Assisi - Museum of Tesoro.

The Master of the Blue Crucifixes was an Italian artist who is thought to have worked in the Umbrian workshop of Giunta Pisano during the 13th century. He is known as "Master of the Blue Crucifixes" for his favoured use of the colour blue on the crucifixes he painted.

Few examples of this Master's work exist, which could be due to his having died very young, possibly in his mid twenties or thirties. He was actively working as an artist from 1220 - 1230.

Crucifix by Giunta Pisano - Arist and owner of the Umbrian workshop

Apprentice to Giunta Pisano

Artists commonly experiment with different painting techniques until they develop a personal style of their own. The Master of the Blue Crucifixes seemed to borrow from the styles of other artists whose work he admired; perhaps those who worked along side him in the workshop.

The workshop owner Giunta Pisano would have encouraged his apprentices to emulate his style, so that when a large work was commissioned, the more proficient apprentices could finish the minor detailing. It's often assumed that Michaelangelo single -handedly painted the Cistene Chapel, when in reality he had a small army of apprentices to help (or he would still be painting it now!)


Scaling up the Blue Crucifix


Blue processional Crucifix
Blue processional Crucifix

Father required an Italian style medieval blue crucifix for his church to complement the mosaic above the sanctuary. We were more than happy to oblige. Painted works in churches seem to be scant these days, despite the acreage of white empty walls that cry out for them.


As a starting point Father chose the image shown left. Its diminutive size meant that studying the detail was difficult. We couldn't find any larger examples to reference from. When we tried to enlarge it, the image would pixelate and blur.

Ideally we would have fly to Umbria to see the original, but that was beyond our budget of course, let alone the restrictions imposed by the C.V. (China Virus/ Corona virus/Conspiracy Virus - take your pick!) This example of the artists work is finer than some of his other works. It suggests that the Master of the Blue Crucifixes had further developed his craft by the time he had painted this one.

Despite the noble elegance of the torso, the hands were its weakest area. The two examples shown below left, are quite loosely painted. I felt this would only become more exaggerated when painted on a larger scale and detract from the overall elegance of the figure. For this reason I made the decision to give more anatomical form to hands (see sketch far right below).



Frames and Braces

The new crucifix was to be eight foot by five foot, three times that of the original. Unlike many medieval crucifixes, the edge of the cross did not have a raised frame, such as that at Lichfield cathedral for example. Instead David added an integral hardwood frame which would not cast unsightly shadows onto the gold areas or the figure itself. This I believe helped to retain its jewel like qualities, and keep the appearance as close to the original as possible.

As this framing can have a secondary role as a structural device, David added an oak bracing to the reverse for extra strength.

When scrutinising the small image as closely as its pixilation would allow, we discovered that the crucifix had decorative panels edged with punch work.


David carves the decorative panel
David carves the crucifix's decorative panel

That fabulous Blue

The crucifixes original blue colour was likely made of Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious stone which is ground down to make pigment. It's still available of course; here's a small jar of it from my icon -painting cupboard. It is striking and sumptuous. Much as I would have liked to present it in its full vibrance, I thought it best not to assail parishioners, whose are more accustomed to seeing colours in churches muted by a film of ancient candlesoot, and I toned it down accordingly

Lapis Lazuli blue
Lapis Lazuli blue
Jeanette painting medieval crucifix
Jeanette painting medieval crucifix
Face detail of crucifix Jeanette Lewis
Face detail of the crucifix

There is a sort of mystique around icons. People often believe that the artist says a prayer for every brush stroke. In actuality most iconographers would admit that is impossible. However, prayer does seem to well up spontaneously whilst working on images like this.


Below is the finished crucifix. Our little dog was keen to have her photo taken and "photo-bombed" the shot as my daughter clicked the shutter. The crucifix is now at the church it was intended for, awaiting installation.



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