Francisco Gallego, Acacius and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat, c. 1490

Field of men hung on crucifixes

Francisco Gallego


Acacius and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat

c. 1490

Tempera and oil on wood panel

60 3/4 x 44 in. (154.3 x 111.8 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.68.02

Hear a reading of the object label (1:19 minutes)

Object Label

This panel probably once was part of a larger altarpiece honoring the Roman centurion Acacius, said to have been converted to Christianity along with his 10,000 troops. When they refused to renounce their new faith, Acacius and his company were crucified. A parallel between this event and that of the Crucifixion of Christ is suggested here by the positions of the three main figures, which recall traditional renderings of Christ on the Cross between the two thieves.

In 1968, Acacius and the 10,000 Martyrs was acquired by the Meadows Museum as a work attributed to Fernando Gallego. Debate soon arose among scholars, some of whom believed that Francisco Gallego (active c. 1480–c. 1500), a lesser-known artist who was likely one of Fernando Gallego’s younger relatives, created the panel. However, a recent scholarly project pioneered by the Meadows Museum has shed light on the Acacius painting and helped determined its definitive attribution. In fact, the painting resembles an important work attributed by contract to Francisco Gallego known as the Triptych of Saint Catherine (Cathedral Museum, Salamanca). When compared, the Meadows and Salamanca paintings contain the artist’s characteristic rendering of large, bulging, crescent-shaped eyes with heavily drooping lids.

Listen to Dr. Amanda Dotseth, curator at the Meadows Museum, discuss this work (2:49 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Francisco Gallego

(Spanish, 1440–1507)

Acacius and the 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat, c. 1490

Tempera and oil on wood panel, 60 3/4 x 44 in. (154.3 x 111.8 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Algur H. Meadows Collection, MM.68.02

The somewhat unusual subject of this large, colorful panel is Saint Acacius and the ten thousand martyrs. The story is that of a group of Roman soldiers that traded Jupiter for Jesus and collectively converted to Christianity—which was, at the time, a forbidden religion in the Roman Empire. Refusing to renounce their new faith under penalty of death, all ten thousand of them were executed using the very method so symbolic of Christian sacrifice: crucifixion. The utterly unfathomable logistics of crucifying ten thousand men was something late-medieval artists grappled with in their attempts to visualize the grim climax of Acacius’s martyrology. Here, Francisco Gallego has settled for a summary, painting only eleven crucified figures. But by positioning them at different depths within the composition, the artist presents a crowd of crucifixions that signals the chaos of mass martyrdom with great economy. Note that some soldiers hang from make-shift crosses composed of gnarled tree branches and that one poor soul has even been nailed directly to the ground. Nevertheless, the focus here is not on the soldiers’ suffering but on their heavenly reward. Serene expressions, rich garments, and rather politely bleeding wounds all signal the divine favor bestowed upon those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.

The exact provenance of this painting is frustratingly unknown to us, so it is difficult to guess what specifically inspired the dedication of such a large panel to Acacius and the ten thousand martyrs. Even so, it is tempting to speculate that the subject would have resonated with those late medieval Castilians who, like their Roman predecessors, were new converts to Christianity. As the aptly named Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, enforced greater religious homogeneity among their multi-confessional subjects, Spanish Jews and Muslims experienced greater pressure to adopt the majority faith. And in that pivotal year of 1492, the Jewish community was faced with an ultimatum—to convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. Newcomers to the church would have, for the first time, worshiped amidst colorful images of saints just like this one. As newly minted Christians themselves, Acacius and his ten thousand companions might have therefore served as compelling exempla for recent converts, for whom the early Christian martyrs represented the promise of divine reward for those steadfast in the faith.

Image Description

This painting is approximately 5 feet tall by 3.5 feet wide. It depicts a scene from the story of Acacius, a 4th century Roman centurion who is crucified along with some of his troops. At the center of the composition, Acacius hangs on a wooden cross that extends the full length of the canvas. The cross is held in place by large rocks, logs, and a block of wood. Acacius’s hands and overlapping feet are secured to the cross with large nails. He has long brown hair and his large, bulging crescent-shaped eyes look upward toward the sky. He wears a red cap and a halo circles his head. To the right of his head, his name is written on the cross. Acacius wears a gold and red, patterned robe under which a red shirt and white undergarment are visible. The robe is tied at the waist and extends down to his ankles. It opens slightly to reveal his crossed legs. The figures of nine other men crucified on crosses fill the space around Acacius. Some face the viewers, while others face the sides and back of the scene. Their facial expressions, like that of Acacius, are droopy.

Two men flank Acacius closely on either side. These men also wear gold-patterned clothing and have their names etched onto their crosses. Extending diagonally on the ground behind Acacius lies the body of a dead legionary whose hands and crossed feet are pierced by wooden nails. His clothing, too, is heavily patterned. The remaining men wear simple tunics with leggings, and halos circle all nine soldiers’ heads. At the bottom of the composition a Roman soldier stands on each side, like bookends framing the scene. Both wear armor and a helmet. The man on the left looks directly at the viewer. He holds a large red heart-shaped shield in his left hand and a spear in his right hand. The Roman soldier on the bottom right side of the work looks up at Acacius. His hands are gloved; his right holds a long baton and his left holds the end of a brown tunic or cloth that hangs over his shoulder. The background is pastoral with green rolling slopes, rocks, and boulders, and trees in the distant background with a blue sky. There is a dirt path going from lower right to upper left that disappears into the folds of the hills. The horizontal and diagonal lines of the landscape counter the strong vertical lines formed by the crosses.