You don’t see this very often – art that invites you to be a part of the picture. In the news this week is one of these point-blank overtures, an early Renaissance painting held by London’s National Gallery that beckons as if pantomiming a crooked finger. Called "Christ Nailed to the Cross," it was made by Gerard David in 1481. You’ve probably seen a jillion crucifixion pictures, but not like his.

Party invitation

Thanks to The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones for calling attention to this work. He calls it a masterpiece. I’m not saying that, but, the image certainly pulls you in. What you see is Christ flat on his back with hands and feet being driven with nails to a cross not yet raised.

And as the Roman soldiers hammer away, Christ’s eyes are wide open, staring straight at you as if to say, “Get in here and watch closely what’s happening.” So, you’re no longer a bystander to the scene, you’re a party to it.

Crucifixion of a second kind

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds the largest collection of Gerard David's work, recognizes on its website what it calls his "novel depictions of traditional themes". The Met also points out how unusual it was for an early Renaissance painter “still casting off his late medieval heritage,” to make earthly matters a subject.

Talking pictures

A good example of a work of art signaling its viewers to enter it came two centuries after Gerard David with a little man at the bottom right side of Peter Paul Rubens’ "Abraham and Melchizedek." While everyone else in the scene is busy relating to one another, the small figure looks directly at you, telling you as though in a stage whisper, “Are you getting what’s going on here?” That’s the question Christ also is asking.

Splendor in the grass

Probably the most famous example of a painting pulling a viewer into its goings-on is Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. What you see here is fully dressed men picnicking with a bare-skinned female. No longer passive like other stripped women in art, she boldly staring back at you in an accusatory way and you imagine her bellowing, “What are you gawking at?” Notably, Manet did this fully three centuries after Gerard David.

Feel the pain

Then there are Frida Kahlo's self-portraits that stare at you so confrontationally they don't so much beckon you as summon you to feel the infirmities she suffers. Noteworthy is that her personal calls for your attention came a whopping five centuries after Gerard David introduced the very idea of “novel depictions of traditional theme.”

The National Gallery in London notes that David’s "Christ Nailed to the Cross" was originally the center panel of a triptych - Pilate and the Chief Priests on the left and The Virgin, Saint John the Evangelist and the Three Marys on the right.

Both of these panels hang in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

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