A Bleak Theologian: Francis Bacon's Use of Crucifixion in Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) and Second Version of Triptych (1988)

Ryan Johnson


Francis Bacon may have denied an interest in religion but his prolonged focus on Crucifixion and Papal  images indicated otherwise. He engages with central theological debates: spirit/body dualism, the nature of sin and evil, and the authority of the pope. This paper specifically addresses his treatment of the Crucifixion, done largely through eight paintings spread over his career, and in particular I will examine the debate surrounding his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) and Second Version of Triptych 1944 (1988).

Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (1944) Francis Bacon
Second Triptych below. 

Some scholars believe that his use of the cross is a mere formalist exercise, concerned with the secular meaning of crucifixion. Nearly all scholars argue that these works depict a bleak Existentialist vision of existence, but most are reluctant to see any Christian underpinnings behind the works. I agree that the end result of the crucifixion pictures is a bleak exhibition of Modern life after God, but it is the dual play of Christian and secular meanings that really makes the works successful. Bacon teases the viewer with a subtle and religiously informed view of the crucifixion triptychs, using Christian images as a clear expression of the intense sorrow and violence he wanted to convey. As Rina Arya, author of the most comprehensive examination of Bacon's religious themes writes of Bacon's treatment of crucifixion, says, "he looks behind the sanitised veneer of aesthetic representations of the Cross and takes the viewer back to the violence and brutality of the cross." Because of cues taken from Christian triptych painting tradition, the paintings initially read as intelligent Modern depictions of Christ's crucifixion. But the lack of a Christ figure brutally awakens the viewer to the Modern proclamation that God is dead. In the end, the full gravity, suffering, and ultimate success of the paintings is not possible without taking into account the parallels to the Christian tradition of Crucifixion painting.

Second Version of Triptych 1944, (1988) Francis Bacon. 

Francis Bacon himself denies a religious interest in many of his interviews, stating that "what interests him in the theme of the crucifixion is not the religious drama, with the divine victim as its central character, but - apart from the act of butchery objectively characterized by the event - the spatial position of the hanging Christ elevated on the cross." In an interview with David Sylvester, he stated further, "I know, for religious people, for Christians, the crucifixion has a totally different significance. But as a non-believer, it was just an act of man's behavior, a way of behavior to another." In his own words, then, Bacon's use of the Crucifixion as an explicit image or implied theme is the savagery, human interaction (presumably of that same savagery), and spatial or formal qualities that attend to the image.

But all of these qualities, presumably, could have been discovered elsewhere in more vivid form; the savagery of World War 2 and the rise of racial violence were after all contemporaneous events to Bacon. The crucifixion may be "just an act of man's behavior," but man's behavior - the culture he was engaged with - was by no means religiously neutral. Bacon has even said that crucifixion acts as an "armature" on which he may let his emotions rest, but his forthright and intensive portraits elsewhere would indicate that this is an unnecessary detour. Why, then, did he turn to an explicitly Christian image? Rather than taking his oft-mysterious and guarded comments at face value, as Arya suggests, some look into his religious background may yield a clearer picture of the situation.

Bacon's religious background makes it possible that his triptychs were in fact based on the Christian crucifixion rather than a generic one. Bacon was raised in Ireland, amidst religious strife and a difficult financial situation. He was persecuted throughout his life for his homosexuality and brutalized by his strict father, eventually kicked out of his house. Rather than being driven away from religion by culture of his time, however, he maintained close relationships with people who were attached to the Catholic faith: Graham Sutherland, Eric Hall, and Roy de Maistre. These friendships kept him in contact with Catholic ideas throughout his life. The last is a significant relationship that began at the time of Bacon's early artistic formation. Roy de Maistre, a practicing Catholic, was a mentor to Bacon and taught him fundamental painting techniques. De Maistre was also gay but was convicted of what the Catholic Church saw as his sin. Bacon was fascinated by de Maistre's cubist paintings of the Crucifixion, and learned much of his early technique from his mentor. Many of de Maistre's crucifixion paintings expressed the extreme suffering of Christ, a quality which mirrors the suffering in Bacon's crucifixion triptychs. Bacon's first paintings were also crucifixions, in a nod to his master.

The crucifixion, (1945), Roy de Maistre

Francis Bacon presumably downplayed the impact that the painter had on him because he wanted to maintain his mysterious, genius persona. Bacon also had good reason for minimizing any affinity he showed towards Christianity, which at the time of the mid-twentieth century was very conservative, especially where the Catholic Church was concerned. Still, Bacon was a learned student of art history, and a known admirer of Grunewald's and Cimabue's crucifixions. He mentions religious painters in his interviews with David Sylvester. Given this religious background, it is not surprising the Crucifixion was the first and a lifelong theme of his. Because of the presence of religion in his culture and persecution, and the foundational influence of another gay artist who painted Christ on the cross, it makes sense that he would address religion, and specifically the Crucifixion of Christ, in his works. Both Arya and Michael Peppiatt saw de Maistre's influence as pivotal in the early technique and ideas of the artist. That he denies seeing the cross as a Biblical symbol in interviews says more about his own conflicted identity than the work itself.

Bacon, I suggest, reads more vividly when we see his art through a Christian understanding, and his art is made stronger by a conscious juxtaposition of his own beliefs with Christian ones. Strangely, although they profane the sacredness of the traditional scene, Bacon's two great Crucifixion triptychs of 1944 and 1988 have a magnetic quality precisely because they provide an insightful historical and theological understanding the Christian narrative. To post-WWII sensibilities, the figures at the base of Gothic and Renaissance triptychs seem plastic and unaffected. The stereotypical kneeling or contorted figure, eyes upward at a tired-looking Christ, doesn't strike us deeply, authentically as it would have done back then. Especially in the age of post-figural painting, which Bacon lived though, the cynicism of the age defeated any such attempts to repeat that same delicate agony. Authentic religious painting, where clear Christian themes were articulated, was by most accounts relegated to practical icons and kitsch. What Bacon painted in 1944 in Three Figures at the Base of A Crucifixion more clearly spells out the spiritual and physical reaction to the death of Christ in Christian tradition. Christian doctrine holds that Jesus bore the weight of the sins of all those who sinned in his brutal, bloody death on the cross. In light of man's sinful nature, we are at our roots depraved creatures that need saving. In Catholic tradition and certain Protestant denominations, the human race is "totally depraved" as a result of sin, unable to save themselves. In light of this, Bacon's three figures take on a multi-level meaning. They accurately display the weight of human sin and its distorting effects. Their agony and pain reflects realization of this and the subsequent, terrible death of Jesus on the cross.

The figure at the left of both Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Second Version of Triptych 1944 has been argued as a penitent figure, perhaps referring to the penitent Magdalene of Christian tradition. This relieves the painting of some of its despair and gives a more Biblical tone to the painting. Underneath an adequate scaling of Christ on the Cross, the scene would be very poignant indeed, capturing something of the real essence of Christian belief. But it is almost as if we, like the creatures, are not worthy to bear witness to the actual cross. We are at the level of the sufferers, who we pity and fear because they are just like us. Like the three cross-bearing figures in Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St. Peter, the faceless shapes bear the weight of suffering, paying for it without observing. Bacon's Crucifixion paintings, then, sustain a dual interpretation, and serve as a modern rendering of the Crucifixion scene that avoids kitsch.

Left-most panel, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, (1944) Francis Bacon

These two triptychs have often been compared to earlier crucifixions for their formal qualities as well, strengthening the case that Bacon might have drawn his meaning from Christian painting. Both paintings have in common twisted, organic forms, in the same way that Picasso's friend Graham Sutherland distorted the Christ figure in his 1946 painting Crucifixion. Sutherland, we remember, was a close friend of Bacon's at the time, and painted crucifixions with clear references to Christ. Roy de Maistre's 1932 Crucifixion, depicting Christ on the cross, crops the painting with the bloody, faceless body of Christ taking up nearly all the compositional space. This compositional device, bringing the viewer uncomfortably close to the suffering at hand, is the same that Bacon uses. Besides the comparison to Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St. Peter, there are other ties to older works. Rembrandt's 1634 Descent from the Cross shows a lumpy, twisted Christ in the same distorted way as the Bacon figures. The white cloth in the central panel is like Jesus' traditional loincloth, present in nearly every depiction of the cross. The composition of the paintings also invites comparison to religious triptychs. The angles of the thin lines in the background of Three Figures indicate the rotating of space that often happened in crucifixion triptychs. In Second Version of Triptych 1944, on the other hand, a straight horizon line behind the figures recalls the use of the same line in Rogier van der Weyden's famous Crucifixion with St Mary Magdalene (c.1440-45)  and Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c.1512-15). The triptych format itself had historically been exclusively dedicated to Christian use.    

Descent from the Cross, (1634) Rembrandt

The slight differences between the two triptychs, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Second Version of Triptych 1944, do not alter the common intent of the pieces. His earlier piece, where the figures take up more compositional space and the paint is handled with rougher texture and brighter colors, is more of an attack. It is more urgent, more visceral, the suffering contemporary. The latter painting is more isolated and reflective in nature. Painted more than forty years later, it reaffirms Three Figures. The anguish of the figures passes into an isolated suffering, in the same way that the pain of witnessing Christ's Crucifixion lapses into the misery of a bleak future.

But though Bacon's work invites the viewer to make all of these Christian allusions, there is ultimately a pessimistic message, born out by a notable absence in the triptychs: the lack of a cross. Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion reads very clearly as a savage depiction of three forms with garish mouths. But the lack of a cross, some focusing force, directs their attention outwards towards us, the viewer. The confusion of roles is Bacon's intention; are we in fact the crucified? Is he the crucified? Are the creatures being crucified? Whatever the case, we feel uneasy, guilty. It is an existentialist crisis at its finest, with no clear cause and effect. He intended to paint a crucifixion for this scene, which makes it all the more striking.

Where does the absence of a cross lead us? Ultimately, we may be forced to see the creatures' pain as mirroring the artist's pain. Perhaps this is where the Crucifixion begins to work as a symbol of Bacon's internal suffering. In the end, Bacon's atheistic worldview affirms, there is no God. The Christian elements of the painting make the work all the more tragic. The mourners anguish over a God who died and will not rise again. It is a way to make Bacon's feelings the subject of the Crucifixion, to place him at the cross in the place of Christ, as it were. The end result here is that the cross becomes a self-inflicting weapon of torture for Bacon himself. Placing himself in the position of Jesus is a God-defying move, appropriate in the age of the death of God. But it not a God-ignoring move, for Bacon's Christian allusions force us to dwell on what might have been the truth.

Bacon is not simply culling the crucifixion from Christian iconology for purely formal communicative purposes, for what made the art so revealing and brutal was the way that Bacon could paradoxically identify with the Christ's almost existential suffering while ultimately rejecting the Christian narrative. As was pointed out earlier, the religion he knew was fraught with violence and harshness.  His was a statement on the religion that he couldn't escape, ultimately guided by a concern for his individual self. That he felt 'crucified' for his beliefs was only possible given his understanding of the meaning and associations of The Crucifixion, to God and the promise of life after death. He aims for an authentic kind of shock, the kind that comes from existential self-realization: "It's something which reverberates within your psyche, it disturbs the whole life cycle within a person. It affects the atmosphere in which you live and move. It's a rather grandiose way of putting it, but it gets into the interstices of the body, of feeling, if it really works."

And this is what Bacon's two triptychs do (in slightly different ways, given their compositional differences). The paintings' similarity to those in Christian tradition immediately bring up images of pain. We do feel pity, we do look for and are unable to fixate on a religious finality to the work. Even though he ultimately revolts against the tradition of altarpieces and the sacredness of the Crucifixion, he allows a full play of meanings, validating the critical success of Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The shock of the distorted figures controls us and forces self-examination as it did when first exhibited. It is profane in a way that aptly describes the sorrow and gore surrounding the original crucifixion. He subverts the traditional, historical depiction to his advantage, using the same force of authenticity that also characterizes the mission of icon painters in their efforts to make clear a spiritual reality. Seeing the crucifixion as a mere torture device or an armature on which to display the artist's feelings oversimplifies the complexity of emotions we approach the work with.

These considerations tame the statements of authors like Michel Leiris who, in an essay on Bacon, insists that Bacon's art is wholly secular and tries to be nothing more than a game. His crucifixion paintings, Leiris claims, "have no iconographical relationship with the death of Christ but are elaborated in triptych form, as if for the purpose of some edifying ceremonial that has lost its content but kept the pattern of its ritual." Bacon's use of triptychs, says Leiris, "might be called a blank liturgy which, having no transcendental references whatsoever and existing only for its own sake, is all the more moving through being quite untinged by any dubious implications [of religion]." In light of the clear connections to Christian iconography, Leiris is wrong to strip the Crucifixions to a bare, secular shell and doesn't do Bacon's art justice when he claims it has "no transcendental references whatsoever." As an icon endowed with centuries of meaning, the image of a cross is inseparable from Christ's passion. To use the crucifix with any figure, as Bacon does in his early paintings, necessarily invites a spiritual consideration; at the  very least, an acknowledgement. Even as Bacon forgoes a cross in his 1944 triptych, the allusion to the Christian meaning is still there. The symbols aren't neutral, but are rather so strong that a purely formal reading is impossible.

Leiris' phrase 'blank liturgy' has some ring of truth in it, since the ultimate message of the paintings is guilt and anguish. When the viewer realizes that the possible Christian optimism always hinted at is gone, he is struck that much more by the painting's power. Says Stephen Spender, "His figures are of those who participate in the crucifixion of humanity which also includes themselves. If they are not always the people who actually hammer in the nails they are those among the crowd which shares in the guilt of cruelty to the qualities that are-or were-beneficently human, and which here seem to have been banished forever." Francis Bacon correctly taps into the contemporary psyche, marred by two World Wars and the apparent evil of technological process. He used the symbols of Christianity in order to expose the viewer to an experience of the death of God, but it is a reluctant death at that. In distorting religious symbols, he ends up rehabilitating the power of those symbols. He makes Crucifixion and penitence relevant once more.     

The titles of Bacon's crucifixion pieces lead many authors to deny the Christian allusion, but this device is better understood as another degree of separation that Bacon establishes between the hope of Christianity and the pain of modern existence. The names generically speak of crucifixion, clueing us in to Bacon's double meaning. Much has been made of the article 'a' in place of 'the,' most notably by John Russell, which, as he argues, generalizes the paintings out of Christian context. The brutality of his triptychs, it seems, is not justified because no redemption is alluded to in the crucifixion that takes place. This leads many commentators to point to a more generic sense of the word 'crucifixion,' which Bacon himself seems to identify with. John Russell defines the crucifix as an armature: 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. On this account, Bacon's later crucifixion triptychs, which do not actually depict a crucifixion, have a purely earthly meaning. They refer, perhaps, to the suffering of existence, which we are all a part of, or even the struggles of Bacon himself as a homosexual artist at the time, but do this only in a secular manner. It is doubtful that this distinction of crucifixions really makes sense. At its source, a generic crucifixion has roots in the strength and conviction of the Christian one. Does this generic use of the word in his titles refute the argument that Bacon himself drew  from Christian tradition?

Hardly; the links of the work to Christian tradition have been pointed out previously. Rather, the title helps establish the failure of Christian redemption. Bacon's crucifixion is not worthy of the title 'Crucifixion,' he knows. The redemptive power of Crucifixions is gone, replaced by a shallow hull of the original. As Bacon twisted crucifixion for his own purposes, the parallels through the triptych format as well as the power of the word itself point back to Christian tradition, even if the titles are generic.

It is with accuracy, then, that Arya agrees with the underemphasizing of Bacon's religion: "In another respect, he can be seen to be moving closer to the Christian, particularly Catholic, meaning of the suffering body on the Cross, which is evoked in his Crucifixion triptychs... He is reviving the significance of the Crucifixion." John Cook has explored how grotesquely ugly images like Bacon's can operate to increase the conviction of faith in traditional Christian painting. Believers are drawn to the suffering of Christ and open themselves up to the grace of God.

But what is missing in Bacon's account is that hope of being saved, for his figures are bleak, with no apparent savior to turn to. Bacon revived religious significance, intelligently exploring its application on the cross, to then distort that image in a bleak and blasphemous way. In a curious but strongly convicting effort, his dealings with crucifixion enlighten the Christian perspective while offering his bleak alternative, and in his view, the more realistic truth.

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