The Art of the Cross: Medieval and Renaissance Piety

Article excerpt

The Art of the Cross: Medieval and Renaissance Piety, an exhibition held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, February 7-April 29, 2001.1

Along with all the other accomplishments and idiosyncrasies that filled her extraordinary life, Isabella Stewart Gardner deserves to be remembered for being one of the first Americans to collect ceremonial art-objects made for Christian liturgy or public devotion, and crucifixes in particular. At the time, this seems to have raised a few eyebrows. Crucifixes were not the sort of thing a proper Boston Protestant might suitably take an interest in. But Mrs. Gardner was no puritan, however proper and Bostonian she may have been. She did belong to the Protestant Episcopal Church, as it then called itself, but her predilections were high-church, and the higher the better. In Boston at the end of the nineteenth century, that meant either the Church of the Advent or the Society of Saint John the Evangelist-neither of them at all averse to crucifixes-or both. For Mrs. Gardner, it meant both. She became great friends with several members of the Cowley Fathers, and gave munificently towards the establishment of their monastery in Cambridge. As a parishioner at the Advent she commissioned the reredos, a spectacular limestone confection, which still stands behind the high altar that she was accustomed to wash ritually on Maundy Thursday.

A large photograph of the Advent's reredos has a prominent place in the alcove that introduces the exhibition under review, illustrating the curators' suggestion that it is an exhibition about collecting and the personality of the collector as well as about the works collected. These works had for their owner a complex value that was at once aesthetic and, partly because it was aesthetic, religious. As for the objects themselves, the exhibition is called "The Art of the Cross," but nearly all of them include a representation of the crucified Jesus, and the two that do not once did. More than one exhibit, in fact, consists of a corpus alone, now detached from the cross it was presumably made for. Except for an enameled book-cover plaque, then, the exhibits are crucifixes, and except for a superb processional cross painted by Luca di Tomme in the middle of the fourteenth century, they portray Christ three-- dimensionally.

It is a commonplace to point out the paradox of making a crucified human body the subject of art or the object of religious devotion, let alone both. But the gruesomely "realistic" type of crucifix that deliberately emphasizes Jesus' physical agony appeared comparatively late in Christian history. There were no portrayals of the crucifixion at all for several hundred years after it occurred, and when crucifixes did begin to be made they were hieratic, stylized, emblematic, indicating an idea or a meaning as much as depicting an event. The earliest and in some ways the finest of Mrs. Gardner's crucifixes (see facing page) is an example. Dating from the middle of the twelfth century, it shows Christ with his eyes closed but with his head erect, uncrowned either with thorns or, as in some contemporary examples, with a diadem. There are nails in his hands but none in his feet, and he appears to be not so much hanging from the wide-armed cross as standing upright in front of it. The cross itself is simple, flat, and rectilinear. The only decoration is a slightly raised rim, ornamented with pencil-point indentations, which sets off the perimeter and within which the symmetrical figure of Christ is entirely enclosed. This cross is less an instrument of punishment than a geometrical silhouette that makes its symbolic reference without calling attention to itself.

Such reticence did not endure. A different sensibility is evident in the six processional crosses, dating from the early 1300s to about 1450, on which the exhibition pivots both visually and historically. Each of the six presents a variation on one scheme for elaborating the shape, and the meaning, of the cross. …