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Fragment of a Crucifixion
Artist Francis Bacon
Year 1950
Type Oil and cotton wool on canvas[1]
Dimensions 140 cm × 108.5 cm (55 in × 43 in)
Location Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

Fragment of a Crucifixion is a 1950 painting by Irish-born artist Francis Bacon (1909–1992) and one of his many works on the theme of the Crucifixion of Jesus. The work displays two distressed, fighting figures positioned at the point of kill. A muscular dog is shown stooping on a vertical structure, which forms part of a T-shaped cross intended to both signify Christ's cross and indicate a beam hanging over a door. Within this frame a chimera is trapped, powerless and in the course of being mutilated by the dog. Blood pours from the canine's mouth onto the head and body of his prey, who is rendered as owl like with human features. The dying animal's scream forms the centerpiece of the work, and draws its influence from the scream of the nurse in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin.[2]

The two figures are positioned in the foreground of the canvas. Although both are mutilated and covered in blood, their physical discomfort is contrasted against a tranquil and flat, warm background typical of Bacon's work from this period. In the mid-ground, the artist has sketched a street scene, which features a number of walking figures and cars.

The pedestrians appear unaffected and uninterested in the slaughter before them. A horizontal angular geometrical shape is sketched in white and grey in the mid-ground, and represents an early form of a spatial device the artist was to develop and perfect over the course of the 1950s, when it effectively became a cage used to frame the anguished figures portrayed in Bacon's foregrounds.[2][3][4]



The foreground contains many elements typical of Bacon's early work, most noticeably the expressive broad strokes used to render the main figures, which are set in contrast against the tightness of the flat, unmemorable, background. The painting contains the same white angular rails Bacon had inserted into the mid-ground in his 1949 Head II and Head IV, as well as his Study for Portrait of the same year. In this work, the rails are positioned just below the area where the horizontal and vertical bars of the cross intersect. The rail begins with a diagonal line which intersects the owl at what appears to be the creature's shoulder.[2] Such horizontal frames were to become a major motif of his works in the later 1950's, and in the Fragment of a Crucifixion he hints at their later form as triangles in works such as the 1970 Three Studies of the Male Back. These frames were at the time being incorporated into other contemporary paintings, having been developed by sculptors such as Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. Giacometti had employed the devise in his The Nose (1947) and The Cage (1950), while Moore had used the frame in his 1952 Maquette for King and Queen.[4] Bacon's use of these frames has brought to mind imprisonment with many critics, and Adolf Eichmann's glass cage during the Nuremberg trials is a common reference.[5][6] Writing on their use in Fragment, the art critic Armin Zweite wrote that the diagonal lines,

on the one hand point inwards towards the idyll, in a promise of happiness, on the other they transform the cross into a guillotine and suggest misfortune. The situation is double-rdged, a Damocles. If you want to reach the "good world" you have to pass through the "bad world", and you run the risk of being killed in the process.[2]
Owls 1956, The shape of the body of the dying chimera was later reproduced in Bacon's 1956 Owls[7]

The body of the fleshy part-bird [8] chimera is rendered with light paint, and from it hangs narrow red drips of paint, indicating the drips and spatter of blood. Pentimenti is used to convey the blood of the death throes the figures have brought to each other.[2] The link with the biblical Crucifixion is made through the raised arms of the lower creature and the T shaped cross.[9] While the upper creature is obviously modelled on a dog,[10] it seems likely that the chimera is based on pictures of bats Bacon kept in his private collection of images.[11] The lower figure's human aspect is seen most notably in the details of its mouth.

Bacon's 1944 Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion is one of a number of precursors for the Fragment of a Crucifixion[12]

The painting has been linked both thematically and its formal construction to 1956 work Owls and to a number of preparatory sketches only brought to the art market in the late 1990s.[7] Zweite traces the origin of the lower figure to a photograph of an owl Bacon found in a book on birds in motion. However, bacon has replaced the bird's beak with a wide open human mouth.[13]

Fragment was one of a number of treatments Bacon created to examine the biblical crucifixion scene, though he incorporated Greek legend into the work, notably the tale of Aeschylus and the Eumenides—or Furies—found in the The Oresteia, which is referenced by the broad wings of the chimera.

Bacon's imagery became less extreme as he got older, and from the early 1950s onwards, few of his canvases contained the sensational imagery that had made him famous in the mid-1940s. He said, "When I was younger, I needed extreme subject-matter. Now I don't." According to the art critic John Russell, Bacon found it more powerful to reflect the violence he sought to convey in his brush strokes and colourisation, not "in the thing portrayed".[14] The artist was his own harshest critic, and often both destroyed or disowned certain works that yet were held in high regard by critics and buyers. Fragment of a Crucifixion is one he came to dislike, he viewed it as too explicit, in the words of Russell, "too near the conventions of narrative-painting."[14][15]

Imagery and sources


The Crucifixion

The title of Fragment of a Crucifixion directly refers to Christian iconography, while the T-shaped Crux Commissa is intended to indicate the cross of Saint Anthony.[12] Crucifixion scenes can be found in Bacon's earliest works,[16] and the imagery of the crucifixion weights heavily throughout his career. The critic John Russell wrote that the crucifixion in Bacon's work is a "generic name for an environment in which bodily harm is done to one or more persons and one or more other persons gather to watch".[17]

Bacon took inspiration from Peter Paul Rubens 1612-1614 triptych The Descent from the Cross[18]

In 1933, the artist's patron Eric Hall commissioned a series of three paintings based on the subject.[19] These early paintings were influenced by such old masters as Matthias Grünewald, Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt,[16] but also by Picasso's late 1920s and early 1930s biomorphs and the early work of the Surrealists.[20] Bacon admitted that he saw the scene as "a magnificent armature on which you can hang all types of feeling and sensation".[21] He believed that the imagery of the crucifixion allowed him to examine "certain areas of human behaviour" in a unique way, as the armature of the theme had been accumulated by so many old masters.[21] In Fragment Bacon, is refers to the theme of the descent of the cross, and links have been made to both Matthias Grünewald and Peter Paul Rubens's works of the descent.[2] According to the art critic Hugh Davies,

The open mouth of the terrified victim, the T-Shape of the cross, and the figure leaning over the crossbar link Bacon's painting with Rubens' Descent of the Cross in London. But the mouth loosely opened in seventeenth century painting is taut in Bacon's image. The legs folded out of view and the left arm passively by Rubens are transposed by Bacon into violent motion, flopping wildly up and down.[2]

The open mouth

Still from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent film The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon called the image a catalyst for his work, and incorporated the shape of the mouth when painting the chimera[2]

The inspiration for the recurring motif of the screaming mouths in many Bacon's work from of the late 1940s and early 1950s was drawn from a number of sources, including medical text books, the works of Matthias Grünewald [22] and photographic stills of the nurse in the Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 silent The Battleship Potemkin. Bacon first saw the film in 1935, and viewed it frequently thereafter. In his studio, he kept a photographic still of the scene which showed a close-up of the nurse's head which showed her screaming in panic and terror and with broken pince-nez spectacles hanging from her blood stained face. He referred to the image throughout his career, using it as a source of inspiration.[23] By the early 1950s it became an obsessive concern, to the point, according to art critic and Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, "it would be no exaggeration to say that, if one could really explain the origins and implications of this scream, one would be far closer to understanding the whole art of Francis Bacon."[24] In this work the scream of the owl like figure trapped in the chimera jaws reiterates the motif.


  1. ^ Peppiatt, 92
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Zweite, 114
  3. ^ Rothenstein, John. "Francis Bacon: Exhibition Cath." Tate Gallery, 23 May-1 July, 1962
  4. ^ a b Sylvester, 36
  5. ^ Slylvester, 37
  6. ^ Farr, 60
  7. ^ a b Gale, Matthew. "Two Owls, No. 2 circa 1957-61". Tate, February 1999. Retrieved on March 30, 2009.
  8. ^ Gale, Matthew. "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion". Tate. Retrieved on 18 April, 2009.
  9. ^ van Alphen, 91
  10. ^ The Tate suggest it may have been modelled on a cat. See Gale, 1998
  11. ^ Sylvester, 40
  12. ^ a b Zweite, 85
  13. ^ Zweite, 85
  14. ^ a b Russell, 76
  15. ^ Schmied, 75
  16. ^ a b Sylvester, 13
  17. ^ Russell, 113
  18. ^ Rothenstine; Alley, 28
  19. ^ Davies & Yard, 12
  20. ^ Bürger, Peter. In Zweite (2006), 30
  21. ^ a b Schmied, 78
  22. ^ Schmied, 73
  23. ^ Davies
  24. ^ Peppiatt, 24


  • Murray, Gilbert. Agamemnon in Complete Plays of Aeschylus. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1952. 86
  • Adams, James Luther & Yates, Wilson & Warren, Robert. The grotesque in art and literature . Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 1997. ISBN 0-8028-4267-4
  • Peppiatt, Michael. Francis Bacon in the 1950s. Yale: Yale University Press, 2006. ISBN 0-3001-2192-X
  • Alley, Ronald & Alley, John. Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson, 1964. ASIN B001AG7U1K
  • Russell, John. Francis Bacon. London: Thames & Hudson, 19. ISBN 0-5002-0271-0
  • Schmied, Wieland. Francis Bacon: Commitment and Conflict. Munich: Prestel, 1996. ISBN 3-7913-1664-8
  • Sylvester, David. Looking back at Francis Bacon. London: Thames and Hudson, 2000. ISBN 0-5000-1994-0
  • van Alphen, Ernst. Francis Bacon and the loss of self. Chicago: Reaktion Books, 1992. ISBN 0-9484-6234-5
  • Zweite, Armin. The Violence of the Real. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006. ISBN 0-5000-9335-0

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