Christ Nailed to the Cross, c1481, by Gerard David
Christ stares right at you as the soldiers drive nails into him. His intense gaze is far from that of a passive lamb accepting its sacrificial fate. There are tears in his eyes. His pain is that of any torture victim. David tries to shock us into empathy, to wrench compassion. It is remarkably similar to the strategy Caravaggio would use more than a century later in his painting of St Peter being nailed upside down to a cross. But there’s mystery, too, in Christ’s eyes. He’s not really looking at us so much as past us, into the supernatural truth of this moment. He suffers yet stands outside his suffering. This is the kind of emotional complexity and tragic power ordinary people experienced every time they went to church in the late middle ages and gazed on religious images that still compel feeling, whatever you believe or don’t believe.
• National Gallery, London.