According to Vasari it was carved in response to the wooden crucifix by Donatello at Santa Croce church in Florence, after Brunelleschi had criticized its exaggerated naturalism, calling it a "peasant on the cross" instead of the body of Jesus Christ, in all its parts the most perfect man who ever lived. Challenged by Donatello to do better, Brunelleschi carved this work, the sight of which caught his friend by such surprise that he dropped to the ground and smashed the eggs in his lap that he had brought for dinner. He is said to have exclaimed, "you shall be granted to Christ and I the farmers." Trivia aside (which may not even be true given the passage of time between the two documented works, estimated at between two and nine years), Brunelleschi’s work is in every sense composed in a completely different way, not only its grace and solemn gravitas, but due to its demanding theological reading.
Compared to Donatello’s work it is far more idealized and measured thanks to the mathematical perfection of form, imitating Vitruvius’s ideal man and providing an echo of the divine perfection of the subject. The arm span equals exactly the figure’s height, the line of the nose is perfectly in line with the navel, etc..
Brunelleschi copied the crucifix by Giotto but revised the figure of Christ. No longer in an upright position, instead it is bent on the cross with an added slight twist to the left that created more favorable viewpoints and "generated space" around them, inspiring the observer on a semi-circular path around the figure.
The work is characterized by a careful study of anatomy and proportions, the result of which keeps to the essential (inspired by classical art), enhancing the dignity and sublime harmony of the work. As with the Cross of Giotto there is nothing random or manufactured by a sudden burst of imagination. Rather it is the result of a continuous reprocessing, rational and theological, motivated by the order of the world and everything in it.