Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – The Crucifixion

Andrea da Firenze, The Crucifixion of Jesus
Italian, c. 1365-1368
Florence, Santa Maria Novella, Cappella Spagnuolo, Upper Portion

"There they crucified him, and with him two others,
one on either side, with Jesus in the middle."

(John 19:18)

Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John – Excerpt from Gospel Reading for the celebration of the Friday of the Passion of the Lord (Good Friday)

The subject of the Crucifixion is one of the most difficult of all subjects to write about because it is so ubiquitous. Scenes of the Crucifixion have abounded in almost every Christian culture and time period. I can only touch on some of the varying ways that it has appeared in this article.

Somewhat surprisingly, given its central importance, the Crucifixion as an iconographic subject was a bit late in getting started. This is, perhaps, not astonishing, when one recognizes that it was not until the late 4th century, following the conversion of Constantine and the declaration that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire, that crucifixion was suppressed as a punishment within the Empire.

The earliest known appearance of a direct reference to it is found in the wooden doors of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome.

4th Century Wooden Doors
Late Antique, c. 430-432
Rome, Basilica of Santa Sabina

They are original to the church, which was built in the 5th century and are dated to 430-432, or roughly a generation and a half from the suppression of the punishment. Further, the image from Santa Sabina is more schematic than realistic. Christ stands between the two thieves, His image larger than theirs because of His greater importance. However, His face is immediately recognizable, already set in the way it would be seen thereafter. No crosses are in evidence. Only the extended arms of the three figures suggest the subject matter. They stand in front of what appears to be a series of walled, pedimented spaces. The survival of these fragile, precious, late antique doors is an amazing gift from the past to us.

Like the subject of the Carrying of the Cross and many of the other subjects associated with the Sorrowful Mysteries, the images of the Crucifixion tend to fall into three main themes:  the narrative, the devotional and a group of hybrid images.

There are scenes that are principally narrative, giving an overview, more or less realistically, of the words in the Gospel accounts of the Passion.  These scenes include the figures traditionally believed (based on the Gospels) to have been present at Calvary: the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Evangelist, and other possible women disciples. They may also include soldiers, members of the Sanhedrin, local citizens and the occasional donor portrait.

Duccio di Buoninsegno
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Giotto di Bondone
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel

Jan van Eyck
Flemish, c. 1420-1425
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Masolino da Panicale
Italian, c. 1428-1430
Rome, Basilica of San Clemente

Piero della Francesca, from Polyptych of St. Augustine
Italian, c. 1460
New York, Frick Collection

Italian, 1465
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Barghello

Veit Stoss
German, c. 1477-1478
Cracow, Church of St. Mary

Maerten van Heemskerck
Dutch, c. 1545-1560
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Italian, 1565
Venice, Scuola di San Rocco

Pieter Brueghel the Younger
Dutch, 1617
Budapest, National Museum

Franz Anton Maulbertsch
Austrian, 1758
Suemeg, Parish Church

Costantino Brumidi
Italian, c. 1870-1880
New York, Church of the Holy Innocents

There are also devotional images, stripped of narrative or background elements. In these we may see the figure of Jesus alone, displayed solely for our meditation and prayer or in company with one other figure who acts as an observer, as our surrogate. Such an image may be found in a prayer book, a devotional book or a liturgical book. It may even be a painting, either large or small.  It appears early and persists alongside the narrative mode.

Page from Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
French, c. 870
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1141, fol. 6v

Giovanni Bellini
Italian, c. 1501-1503
Private Collection

Lucas Cranach the Elder
German, 1536
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art

Anthony van Dyck
Flemish, c. 1622
Venice, Church of San Zaccaria

Francisco de Zurbaran
Spanish, 1627
Chicago, Art Institute

Bartolome Murillo
Spanish, 1675
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salvador Dali
Spanish, 1954
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And then, there is a third, hybrid, category. These images seem to be compounded of the devotional image writ large. They are stripped of much of the narrative elements, but may include other figures. Most importantly, they are on a larger scale than that of the true devotional image. Often they are altarpieces. One might think of them as a series of “just the facts” images.

Byzantine Ivory Plaque
Byzantium, c. 950
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Apse Mosaic
Italian, c. 1130s
Rome, Basilica of San Clemente

Italian, c. 1426
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Copdimonte

Rogier van der Weyden
Flemish, c. 1445
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Andrea del Castagno
Italian, c. 1455
Florence, Church of Sant'Apollonia

Raphael Sanzio, Citta di Castello Altarpiece
Italian, 1502
London, National Gallery

Matthias Gruenwald, Isenheim Altarpiece (center, first face)
German, c. 1515
Colmar, Musée d'Unterlinden

Lucas Cranach the Younger
German, 1555
Weimar, Stadtkirche Sankt Peter und Paul
This painting, known as the Weimar Triptych, illustrates that, at the beginning, the Reformation  retained many features of the past, even while introducing new interpretations.

Annibale Carracci
Italian, 1583
Bologna, Church of Santa Maria della Carità

Simon Vouet
French, 1622
Genoa, Church of the Gesù

Hendrick Terbrugghen
Dutch, c. 1624-1625
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Francesco Conti
Italian, 1709
Florence, Church of San Lorenzo

The Crucifixion offers much to think about. It should not be glossed over. For, if Jesus did not die this cruel and bitter death, there would be no resurrection. “And if Christ has not been raised your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19) 

It is through the Crucifixion that we reach the Resurrection.

© M. Duffy, 2013

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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