My Favourite Painting: Nick Herbert

Lord Herbert of South Downs chooses a classic Velázquez image which paints the Son of God as 'the most beautiful creature that God ever created'.

Nick Herbert on his choice, Christ Crucified by Diego Velázquez

‘I was intensely moved by this painting when I first I saw it in the Prado and it still affects me deeply. The unusual black background, the physical realism of Christ’s body and its extraordinary lighting transmit His human vulnerability; here is a figure of serene beauty and lonely suffering.

‘I find myself simultaneously unable to avert my eyes, yet overwhelmingly saddened by the cruelty of the Crucifixion, captive to what one Spanish poet described as “complete humanity in the uncreated light that never dies”.’

Nick Herbert, aka Lord Herbert of South Downs, is chairman of the Countryside Alliance

John McEwen on Christ Crucified and Velázquez

This picture was probably commissioned in the 17th century for the Benedictine Convent of San Plácido in Madrid. Historians date it stylistically to the year Velázquez returned from Italy: the Apollonian perfection and pallor of Christ recall the work of Guido Reni; the dramatic light and shade the influence of Caravaggio.

The super-focus of its naturalism, even down to the superior carpentry of the Cross, gives it an ethereal quality that reflects the belief that Christ, as Son of God, had to be the most physically, as well as spiritually, perfect of men. It is in keeping that His divine halo is not a detached ring, but a glowing emanation.

The belief is voiced in the Messianic Psalm, Vulgate 44, 3: Speciosus forma es prae filiis hominum (Thou art the most beautiful of the sons of men). The Vulgate was St Jerome’s 4th-century translation of the Hebrew Bible, ‘Messianic’ those passages interpreted by Christian theologians as predicting the coming of Christ, the Messiah.

The artist Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s master and father-in-law, wrote:

‘Christ, Our Lord, had no earthly father and thus completely resembled His Mother who, after Him, was the most beautiful creature that God ever created.’

Velázquez followed Pacheco’s iconography for the Crucifixion: the arms forming a curve rather than being at right angles, with four nails and His feet side by side on a supportive ledge. It is a gentler rendering of the torture, further idealised by the exclusion of body hair in the Classical manner.

The picture became privately owned in the 19th century and was given to the Prado by Ferdinand VII (1784–1833).


My favourite painting: Lady Sarah Chatto

‘I find the colours and the drawing of the Italian landscape inspirational and each time I stand and contemplate this painting,