Nikolaï Gay is a Russian artist belonging to the generation of the Itinerants, a group of painters hostile to academic painting and determined to use art as a means of social reform. He was not a practising Orthodox, but was deeply influenced by morality and Christian spirituality. He spent the last years of his life working on a cycle of paintings of the Passion of Christ, under the influence of the progressive writer Leo Tolstoy. The Crucifixion, painted about 1892, is the final canvas in the cycle.
Gay reworked it several times, as evidenced by the figure of the Roman centurion looming up unfinished or partly repainted in the background. He tried by formal means to translate the moral torment and suffering of the death throes, by accentuating the expressiveness of the faces and refusing the academic vision of an ideal, inhuman body, unaltered by the Passion; the dramatic lighting intensifies the violent emotion that he wanted to trigger in the spectator. The work was considered shocking and near-blasphemous and Tsar Alexander ordered it to be withdrawn from the 22nd exhibition of the Itinerants where it was shown for the first time.