Friday, April 6, 2012

Meditation on the Passion – The Man of Sorrows

Michele Giambono, Man of Sorrows
Italian, ca. 1430
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
“See, my servant shall prosper,
he shall be raised high and greatly exalted.
Even as many were amazed at him—
so marred were his features,
beyond that of mortals
his appearance, beyond that of human beings—
So shall he startle many nations,
kings shall stand speechless;
For those who have not been told shall see,
those who have not heard shall ponder it.”
(Isaiah 52:13-15) Excerpt from the First Reading for Good Friday Liturgy of the Passion of the Lord 

Among the many images that evoke the Passion the one that is probably the most shocking to our modern eyes is that of the Man of Sorrows. In fact, even among Catholics it is now little known, having been supplanted long ago by other images, such as the Sacred Heart, or more recently, by the Divine Mercy. I confess that I, myself, had never seen it prior to my second year in graduate school and, at first sight, I found it extremely shocking. Yet, it was once one of the best known and most wide spread of all visual meditations on the Passion.

The Man of Sorrows image has many variations and relationships to other images. Interpretation of these relationships is extraordinarily complex, far too complex to deal with in one article. Consequently, I will limit myself to merely describing the most common and simplest variation.

Naddo Ceccarelli, Man of Sorrows
Italian, ca. 1347
Vienna, Liechtenstein Museum

Meister Francke, Man of Sorows
German, ca. 1430
Hamburg, Kunsthalle




















Hans Memling, Virgin with the Man of Sorrows
Netherlandish, 1475-1480
Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria
(Interestingly, Memling includes in the
background disembodied body parts of the
tormentors of Christ, in addition to the
traditional instruments of the Passion. 
As this work is about 30 years later than
Fra Angelico's work at San Marco it is
quite possible that ideas from Angelico's
Mocking of Christ may have made their
way to Northern Europe.)
At its most basic the image of the Man of Sorrows is: a half-length image of the crucified Jesus, showing His wounds. He may be shown as crowned with thorns or with the crown removed. His arms may be folded over His torso or they may be extended at His sides. Sometimes He seems to be sitting upright on his own power, sometimes His body is supported by others. In any case His wounds are visible. His head is inclined to His right.  And, most importantly, in the original image He is shown as dead, with closed eyes.


The image appears to have developed first in Byzantine art, entering Western art by about 1300, probably via Rome and Venice. 1 From that point it spread throughout the West, so that there are examples readily available from nearly every country in Europe by 1500. And it is in the West that the tremendous development in the theme took place.

This is, above all, a devotional image and appeared in every kind of medium imaginable, including painting, sculpture, goldsmith’s work, lapidary.
Man of Sorrows
from Tres belles heures de Notre Dame
de Jean de Berry
French (Paris), ca. 1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 3093, fol. 155r

Cristoforo Scolari, Man of Sorrows
Italian, ca. 1500
Dayton, Art Institute




Man of Sorrows, Triptych pendant reliquary
German, ca. 1400
Munich, Schatzkammer der Residenz
 It causes us to ponder the sufferings of Jesus and to evoke in us a sense of pity. Indeed, in Latin it is known as the “Imago Pietatis”, in French, it is the “Christ du pitié”, in German the “Schmerzensmann”. This fits into what we know of some emotional forms of medieval piety and it enjoyed a long life from its introduction till around 1600, when its basic form faded. However, it had a strong influence on other images, which have continued, even into the modern world. It affected, among others: the Ecce Homo, Deposition, Lamentation and Burial images, and other images that are no longer so much with us, such as the Dead Christ supported by saints and angels and images of the Holy Face. 
Simon Marmion, Virgin Mary and Man of Sorrows Diptych
French, 1480-1490
Bruges, Groeninge Museum










In a more subtle way, the identification of the Dead Jesus with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant through the image of the Man of Sorrows has influenced the wider culture, beyond Catholicism. One example is found in the music of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah”.  Below is a recording by the great English mezzo-soprano, Janet Baker.


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1. Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese, The Man of Sorrows in Venetian Art, edited by Catherine Puglisi and William Barcham, New York and London, Museum of Biblical Art in association with D. Giles Limited, p. 10. This book is the exhibition catalog for the exhibition “Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese” at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York from February 11 to June 12, 2011. In addition to the catalog entries for the works in the exhibition, the book includes informative essays on the Man of Sorrows image, primarily in Venice and the Veneto (the area of mainland Italy traditionally controlled by Venice). This is, however, merely a minute slice of the enormous diversity and geographic spread of the image.

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