History, Theology & religion, Visual art

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part II – Theological & ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church

This is the second part in a series of seven posts entitled The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art’, which attempts to identify and justify some changes in crucifixion depictions throughout history.  Read the first part to catch up.

  1. Introduction
  2. Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church
  3. Social and cultural developments in the Western Church
  4. The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows’
  5. The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’
  6. Grünewalds masterpiece
  7. Conclusion


Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church

In briefly assessing the development of the Christian understanding of Christ’s Passion leading up to the appearance of ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif, we see rather homogenous views in very early traditions.  The primary concern of the Apostles was that the Church ‘everywhere and always views the sufferings of the Lord upon the cross in the glorifying light of that resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, by which they were followed. … To be “witnesses of the resurrection,” [the Apostles] all alike regard as the special task of their lives, the purport of their whole Apostolic ministry.’1  This sense of victory, in which the cross points to the redemption of the resurrection, was the primary focus of Christian depictions of the crucifixion—reflecting the contemporary theological trends—through the 13th century.2

Two examples of the ‘Christ in Victory’ motif from the first millennium are found below, the first from Ireland3 (now located in the Abbey of St Gall, Switzerland) and the second form St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.4

Christ’s outstretched arms meet his body at a 90-degree angle, lacking any sort of stress from the weight of his body pulling his shoulders downward.  The crown of thorns almost always seen in modern depictions of the Passion is absent in the Irish piece and in both pieces Christ is sporting kingly robes.  Also in the Irish piece, Christ’s head is upright, and it would not be surprising to find his facial expression lacking any sort of anguish in other pieces from this time period.  In these earlier depictions the cross often represents the ‘Tree of Life’, and is ‘unhewn’, alive and natural.5  How did the Church move from this victorious image of Christ to an image like Naddo Ceccarelli’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows6 (below) in the Late Middle Ages?

In the centuries preceding the appearance of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif we see in monasteries like St Peter’s in Salzburg practicing lectio divina, ‘sacred reading’, which invites ‘monks to participate imaginatively in the events of Christ’s life and death as described in the Scriptures.’7  A chief export of this imaginative participation was St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) and the rule he founded.8  Francis has been characterised as possessing an ‘intense devotion to the humanity of Jesus’, even to the degree of emphasising Christ’s humanity above his deity.9  For Francis the Passion event was of the utmost importance as it demonstrated Christ’s humanity most explicitly and to its fullest extent10Ecce homo, ‘Behold the man’.

Later Franciscan St Bonaventura (1221-74) elaborated on the experience of the Passion in his Meditations on the Life of Christ.11  He writes, ‘Look at him well then as he goes along, bowed down by the cross and gasping aloud.  Feel as much compassion for him as you can, placed in such anguish in renewed derision…’12  We can see, as is characteristic of Franciscan literature in general, that Bonaventura’s presentation of the Passion in his Meditations includes Christ—not Simon of Cyrene as is found in the Synoptic Gospels—carrying the cross, in the tradition of John’s Gospel.13  Bonaventura goes yet further in a letter to a nun, inviting the onlooker to not simply observe Christ in compassion, but to enter into Christ and experience his sufferings:

Therefore, draw near with the feet of thy affections…to Jesus nailed to the gibbet of the cross; and with the blessed apostle Thomas, do not merely look at the marks of the nails in his hands, do not merely put your finger into the place of these nails, do not merely place your hand into his side, but enter wholly by the gate of his side right into the very heart of Jesus.  And there transformed into Christ by the most burning love of the Crucified, fastened by the nails of the divine fear, transfixed by the lance of a heartfelt love, pierced by the sword of the deepest compassion, seek nothing else, wish for no other thing, and seek no other consolation than to die with Christ on the cross.14

With the Franciscans in particular we see a massive theological shift in the spirituality of the Church, one inviting both clergy and laity to participate in the rehearsal of the suffering humanity of Christ.  At the same time the Church was reorienting itself in order to ‘gain control over the laity; to enforce uniformity of belief and behaviour to an extent it had never managed before.’15  Pope Innocent III called the Fourth Lateran Council (Lateran IV) in 1215, which is considered to be the most important of the seven Papal councils from 1123 (Lateran I) to 1312 (Vienne) as well as ‘the most wide-ranging in scope.’16  Norman Tanner, Professor of Church History at the Gregorian University, describes Lateran IV as ‘the Trent or Vatican II of the Middle Ages.’17  With specific regard to our investigation concerning private devotional matters associated with the development of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif, the most crucial outcome of Lateran IV was the firm establishment of confession and penance as Church practice.18   With this we see an inherent connection with indulgences.  Although the Catholic Church held no formal position on purgatory until the Council of Florence, its existence was a common belief in Medieval Europe, resulting in the demand for indulgences.19  Within the concept of indulgences we see three necessary steps to bring about reconciliation between God and the sinner: contrition, confession and penance.20

In the next section of this essay, Social and cultural developments in the Western Church, we will discuss, among other things, how these theological and ecclesiastical developments affected Christian life and devotion, paving the way for the further development of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif.


1 Otto Zöckler, The Cross of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), 100.
2 Ibid, 203.
3 Artist unknown, c. 800, Ireland, now in Sinai Abbey Library of St Gall, Switzerland.  Peter Harbison, The Crucifixion in Irish Art (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2000), 2-3.
4 Artist unknown, eighth century, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai.  Belmont University, ‘Early Icons from St. Catherine’s, The Sinai: 6th through 8th centuries’; Available from http://campus.belmont.edu/honors/SinaiIcons/SinaiIcons.html; Internet; accessed 10 November 2009.
5 Zöckler, 203.
6 Naddo Ceccarelli, Christ as the Man of Sorrows, c. 1347, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.  Liechtenstein Museum, ‘Early Italian Paintings: Religious Subjects’; Available from http://www.liechtensteinmuseum.at/en/pages/1417.asp#20191625; Internet; accessed 29 April 2011.
7 Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 1-2.
8 Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 272.
9 Joseph H. Lynch, The Medieval Church, A brief history (London: Longman, 1992), 232.
10 A. A. MacDonald, Bernhard Ridderbos and R. M. Schlusemann, eds. The Broken Body: Passion Devotion in Late-Medieval Culture (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1998), 31-32.
11 Many Pseudo-Bonaventura works appeared in the Middle Ages, including Meditations on the Life of Christ, but for this study we shall simply refer to the author as Bonaventura, representing general Franciscan thought.  See Ernst Philip Goldschmidt, Medieval Texts and Their First Appearance in Print (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), 128.
12 C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England, 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003), 176.
13 Compare Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26; John 19:17 (All Bible quotations within this study are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Church of Christ in the United States of America).
14 Clark, 170-171.
15 Kauffmann, 147.
16 Norman P. Tanner, Councils of the Church, A Short History (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), 51-52.
17 Ibid, 51.
18 Kauffmann, 147.
19 MacDonald, 74.
20 Ibid, 74-75.


About Elijah

My name is Elijah and I am a proud Angeleño-Glaswegian. I serve as Minister of Queen's Park Govanhill Parish Church. My other interests include life in active community, writing, performing and partaking of music, collecting vinyl records, hiking/outdoors, urban exploration, Celtic FC and the Detroit Tigers.

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