Catholic University students are gathered in a semicircle sitting on tiny folding stools around Mathias Grünewald’s The Small Crucifixion at the National Gallery of Art. The painting by the 16th century German Renaissance Master is an eerie, haunting, and painfully honest depiction of Christ’s death — and it is the only Grünewald in the United States.
They are engaged in the process of “slow looking,” a way of appreciating art that allows time for thoughtful analysis. The students are getting good at this. Every Friday for 2½ hours they meet at the Gallery for their art course CUA@NGA: Renaissance Masterworks.
After a while Lorena Bradford, an instructor for the University’s art department, breaks the silence. “Tell me what you see.” There is no shortage of responses.
“Christ’s arms are abnormally long. It feels like they are stretched, tortured,” observes one student.
“He is contorted, disfigured, especially his hands and feet. You really see the grim reality of death by crucifixion,” adds another student.
“The painting is dark, yet there is some source of light and it’s not clear where it’s coming from.”
“That’s an excellent observation,” says Bradford. “Many believe that light source is based on a solar eclipse that Grünewald likely witnessed in 1502.”
“Do you like the painting?” she then asks the group.
“Yes and no,” responds one of her students. “I actually like that it is so shocking. It really makes you think. But it’s not a piece of art I want hanging on a wall in my home.”
“It’s certainly not going to be your screen saver,” says Bradford. “But I have come to love this painting. I find something new in it every time I come here.”
Before moving on to other German Renaissance paintings, the class compares the work of Grünewald to Italian Renaissance works they studied earlier in the semester. “Their renderings of the crucifixion are so idealized compared to the German work,” says one student. They also consider the historical context of the painting. Bradford tells them, “Many believe The Small Crucifixion is inspired by St. Bridget of Sweden’s accounts of her mystical visions of Christ’s death.”
In Renaissance Masterworks, Bradford and her students spend each class with just three or four pieces from the Gallery’s extensive collection of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. The students are also given access to the print room.
Bradford loves what she does. She is currently the head of Accessible Programs at the National Gallery of Art, where she also served as a museum educator for eight years. The accomplished art historian says it is a dream to work at “America’s museum.” “I’m still a little surprised every morning when the guards let me in early. It’s the best feeling in the world,” she says.
The National Gallery of Art takes up two magnificent buildings — both works of art in their own right — on the National Mall. It houses some of the finest museum collections in the world, including work by such artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rembrandt, Bernini, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, John Singleton Copley, Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock.
“What a joy to share my love of this museum with such a great group of students,” says Bradford. “They come here every week with a commitment to look at art in a new way, to slow down and think critically as they consider each work of art in the context of history, the artist’s background, artistic techniques, and the nuances of each piece. They will always have the National Gallery of Art as an old friend that they can keep coming back to.”