Saint John the Evangelist, most beloved of Jesus’s disciples, holds his head in sadness. According to John’s Gospel, he was present at Christ’s crucifixion, and this panel, along with one depicting the Virgin Mary also in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, was originally part of a large, painted crucifix (see Reconstruction).
The cross to which the Gallery's panels belonged was probably made for the church of San Francesco in Bologna, and has a touching story around it. A commentary written in the late 1300s recounts how a crucifix in that church had spoken to console a monk visiting from England. That monk was John of Pecham, a Franciscan theologian who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1279 after his return to England. The story helps define the probable dating of the Gallery's two pictures, which are not signed or dated. This anonymous artist painted crucifixes for other Franciscan churches—hence the name he has been given by scholars. Those included one at the basilica in Assisi, the mother church of the order and where Saint Francis is buried. It is likely that the artist trained in Assisi, and since all his known works seem to have been Franciscan commissions, he may well have been a Franciscan friar himself.
The two mourners would have appeared at the ends of the cross’s lateral arms—Mary on the left, John on the right. The dimensions of the two panels—each nearly three feet tall—suggest just how large the entire cross must have been. Examples that survive intact often measure 10 feet tall or more.