Francis Newton Souza, born in the Portuguese colony of Goa to Indian parents, was brought up as a strict Catholic. In 1949, having become a well-established artist in India, he moved to Britain. After six difficult years living in London, he began to build a considerable reputation as a writer and painter.
This painting, which is one of several religious pictures by Souza, refutes the ‘blond operatic Christs and flaxen-haired shy Virgins'(Souza, p.8) he had been encouraged to admire at the Jesuit school he went to in Bombay. Instead it emulates ‘the impaled image of a Man supposed to be the Son of God, scourged and dripping, with matted hair tangled in plaited thorns’ (Souza, p.9) he saw hanging over the altars of the Catholic churches he attended.
While the depiction of Christ and the other figures as black represents a significant departure from the western canon, such critics as Edwin Mullins and David Sylvester compared the expressionist vernacular of Souza’s work with that of Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), both of whom had depicted religious subject matter in a similarly brutal style shortly after the Second World War. Indeed, Sutherland painted several crucifixions in the postwar period which referred directly to the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515 (Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, France) by the German Renaissance painter Matthias Grunewald (c1475-1528), among them Crucifixion, 1946 (Tate N05774). Comparisons were also made to Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) work of the late 1930s and the 1940s, though the distorted faces in Crucifixion may equally be compared to those of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
Mullins described Souza’s vision of divine power as of ‘a God, who is not a God of gentleness and love, but rather of suffering, vengeance and terrible anger’ (Mullins, p.40). The tortured figure of Christ and the grotesquely deformed characters on either side of him, who according to Souza may be St John and a disciple, testify to this reading of his religious imagery.