Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Cross History: Artists from the Fifth Century Onward Demand That We See the Crucified Christ with New Eyes

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Cross History: Artists from the Fifth Century Onward Demand That We See the Crucified Christ with New Eyes

Article excerpt

The cross has become so ubiquitous in art that it has perhaps become difficult for us to see it in all of its profundity. Our eyes can become desensitized. We see a cross or a crucifixion scene depicted in a work of art and it may register as a Christian symbol, or it may simply dissolve in the torrent of images we encounter on a daily basis.

Indeed, there are innumerable images of crosses and crucifixion scenes in our world, stretching from kitsch, devotional art, and folk art all the way to world-renowned masterpieces. In this inundation of images we might sometimes lose track of the unique qualities and deeper significance of some truly sublime and thought-provoking artworks. We may forget that we as Catholics see the world sacramentally. So, in the midst of our Lenten journey, perhaps it would benefit our faith to examine some of these works of art and discover how the image of the cross may speak to us anew and draw us closer to God.

Crucifixion scene from the exterior door of Santa Sabina

Images from scripture cover the interiors and exteriors of our sacred spaces. They greet us as we enter a church and they draw our minds to God as we pray. These images have served us well, often familiarizing the faithful with the story of Christ or presenting distinct theological interpretations of certain events.

The exterior wood doors of Santa Sabina in Rome have the distinction of presenting us with one of the earliest existing depictions of the crucifixion. It is a scene at once familiar and different. Jesus is placed centrally in the panel amidst the two thieves, and yet he is much bigger than they are. This artistic device, referred to as "hierarchical scaling," uses size to emphasize what is of greater value in an image. Thus this enlarged Christ commands our attention in this image.

We also note that Jesus here is not shown wracked in agony and contorted in pain; rather, he is serene and dignified. It is a very human, albeit somewhat generic, depiction of Christ. While its humble crafting gives us a further sense of Jesus' humanity, the other devices used in the artwork emphasize a very real faith in the divinity of Christ.

Giotto di Bondone, Crocifissione

From early representations of Jesus as a young and beardless man to idealized Greco-Roman influenced imagery and the golden hues of Byzantine iconography, we emerge into the early Italian Renaissance. Instantly recognizable from this era are the breathtaking blue skies of the masterful artist Giotto.

Giotto's heart-wrenching crucifixion scene from the Arena Chapel is likely one of the world's finest. Known not only for his three-dimensional modeling of figures, subtle attention to the effects of light, and the psychological depth of his imagery, Giotto has also been recognized as one of the great innovators of his time. The inconsolably weeping angels, along with the distraught saints, powerfully ground the idea that heaven and earth are overcome with grief for the death of Jesus as in no other work of art. And yet there is a subtle tranquility to the piece that hints that all is not lost.

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion scene from the Isenheim altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald's famous crucifixion scene from the Isenheim altarpiece features no subtle tranquility. Here agony, suffering, and death are shrouded in a heavy darkness that overwhelms all but the prophetic John the Baptist. This twisted, contorted Christ seems oddly contemporary with Grunewald's almost morbid interest in the physicality of suffering. In fact, this painting was frequently cited in relation to Mel Gibson's blood-soaked film, The Passion of the Christ. The image also contains some poignant theological symbolism, such as the blood of the lamb pouring into a chalice, which evokes both a biblical and liturgical context. This context is further established by the painting's place within an altarpiece that also contains Griinewald's exuberant depiction of Christ's glorious resurrection. …

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