History, Theology & religion, Visual art

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part III – Social & cultural developments in the Western Church

This is the third 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 and second parts 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


Social and cultural developments in the Western Church

As we recall from our previous post, three necessary steps were derived in the Late Middle Ages to bring about reconciliation between God and the sinner: contrition, confession and penance.  One especially popular form of penance was the pilgrimage, and in that the meditation on the Stations of the Cross.  A European Christian had two primary pilgrimage options.  The first and more conventional option was the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, specifically to Jerusalem where one could experience the Stations of the Cross in the ‘supposed’ setting of Christ’s experience in the first century; ‘supposed’ because once a European had traveled all the way to Jerusalem (a dangerous trip that would often take many months) they were given a tour of ‘Christ’s route’ by the Franciscan guides.  The problem with this route is that it was not the traditional, historical route that Christ actually walked to Golgotha due to difficult topography to traverse.  If news of Jerusalem’s dangerous, lengthy and anticlimactic pilgrimage was less than appealing to a European Christian the second option was to visit the relics of the Passion at various locations in Italy.  But with this option came its own list of setbacks, for example, the large area that the relics were spread across and the second-rate nature of visiting mere relics in Rome when the actual setting was thousands of miles away in Jerusalem.1

The ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ was developed as an alternative to the physical pilgrimage, especially for the elderly and those suffering from physical ailments that made travel nearly impossible.2  In the centuries following Lateran IV, personal devotion via ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ became incredibly popular for several reasons, including the aforementioned convenience of a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ in contrast to the physical pilgrimage and the advent of more efficient printing techniques and the post-Black Death culture of mortality (to be briefly expanded upon further on), which helped provide—along with such popular teachings as those of the Franciscans—a fertile context for the more personal, emotional and humanistic shift within the Church.

In the century preceding Lateran IV, large ‘Romanesque’ Bibles had served as a public statement of ‘monastic corporate identity.’3  By the 13th century two new innovations in printing were developed: ‘the availability of extremely thin parchment which enabled books of 700 folios (1,400 pages) to remain pocket or hand-held size’ and the ‘minute, compact gothic book hand, a script derived from the Peter Lombard glosses of the post-1170 period.’4  These innovations enabled more of the laity to get their hands on Church resources.  The concept of a single image that would convey the entire suffering of the Passion—which would become the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif—found a home both in the need for indulgences and the newly-available printed means of transmission.

It is likely that bubonic plague, a disease spread via the fleas on rodents, first appeared in Europe in the sixth century, effectively pushing the failing Roman Empire into further decline.  The plague continued through the eighth century, eventually disappearing in Europe until the fourteenth century.5  The bubonic plague broke out in Europe a second time, between 1347 and 1350.  The Black Death, as it came to be known, wiped out between one-quarter and one-third of the population of Europe.  These figures were usually higher in more ‘crowded and unsanitary cities’.6  R. N. Swanson argues that the period between 1215 and 1515 was overshadowed by four words used as a poetic refrain by the English monk John Lydgate (d. 1449/50) and the Scot William Dunbar (d. c. 1520): Timor mortis conturbat me’ (‘the fear of death sets me in turmoil’).7  This refrain, from The Office for the Dead prayer cycle, demonstrates a Church obsessed with death, largely fueled by the Black Death.  It is worth mentioning for our purposes that this obsession with death might have also have been encouraged by the ‘revival and spread of judicial torture’ between 1150 and 1250, with the common usage of the rack as a means of torture, something that will resonate with eventual depictions of Christ spread out on the cross.8

With this obsession with death and the very present reality of terminal illness (as well as the humanistic orders like the Franciscans that predate the Black Death) came a new institution – the hospital.  Unlike the modern connotation of a hospital associated with doctors and medicine, the hospital, which became a ‘common feature in the urban landscape’ of the twelfth century, was more of a ‘rest home for the aged, a place for the temporarily ill to recover, a final bed for the terminally ill, [and] a residence for the blind.’9  The hospital (derived from an archaic French term meaning ‘House of God’) brought about ‘large religious orders devoted to hospital work, including those of the Holy Spirit and St Anthony of Vienne.’10

With the introduction of the spiritual pilgrimage, fueled by the rise in distribution of printed materials and the death-obsessed culture of late medieval Europe, came a sharp surge in popularity of this emotional devotion which brought about the ripening of the ‘affective identity’ of the believer with ‘the dying God-man’, much in the vein of Franciscan devotion.  According to Rachel Fulton in her introduction to From Judgment to Passion, this identifying with ‘the dying God-man’ made up the ‘heart of medieval Christianity’.11  Thus, depictions of the Pietà (Italian for ‘pity’; typically a sculpture depicting the mournful Virgin Mary cradling the body of the deceased Christ), of the Mass of St Gregory (which associates the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif with St Gregory, further legitmisising the motif in late medieval society12) and the arma Christi (the instruments of the Passion13) became just as popular for the emotions they elicited as they were for the indulgences associated with them.14

Within this complex late medieval context (with many factors necessarily untouched in so short an essay) we see a stage well set for the introduction of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif, which we will explore in the next two sections.  (Read part four, The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows.)


1 A. A. MacDonald, Bernhard Ridderbos and R. M. Schlusemann, eds. The Broken Body: Passion Devotion in Late-Medieval Culture (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1998), 77-85.
2 Ibid, 87-92.
3 C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England, 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003), 149.
4 Ibid.
5 Joseph H. Lynch, The Medieval Church, A brief history (London: Longman, 1992), 306.
6 Ibid, 308.
7 R. N. Swanson, Religion and Devotion in Europe, c. 1215-c.1515 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 191-2.
8 Kauffmann, 179.
9 Lynch, 211.
10 Ibid, 211.
11 Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 1.
12 Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe, eds., Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 532-534.  Introductory discussion on the association between the Man of Sorrows and the Mass of St Gregory.
13 Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500 (London: Merrell Holberton, 1994), 114.  With regard to the instruments of Passion, prior to 1300 they were seen ‘as the weapons with which Christ, by suffering, achieved his paradoxical victory.  The arma Christi belong to the victor, the risen Christ, not to the suffering Jesus.  They are the attributes of the Majestas Domini.  There could hardly be more conclusive evidence of the new function of old images than the change in meaning of the instruments of the Passion.  In the Late Middle Ages, what were originally symbols of triumph became stimuli for compassion.  Artists invented more and more of these instruments…[including] the scoffing, the lantern used at Christ’s arrest, and the cock that crowed after Peter’s denial.’
14 Swanson, 221.

About Elijah

My name is Elijah. My 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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: