History, Theology & religion, Visual art

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part IV – The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows’

This is the fourth 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, second, and third 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


The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows’

In now more explicitly discussing the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif it is important to draw attention to the fact that we see the ‘Man of Sorrows’ appear (at least in one instance1) nearly fifty years before the Black Death hit Europe.  But the introduction of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ is not so much our concern as is the eventual popularity and widespread use of the motif.  Therefore, the context of death, specifically the Black Death of the fourteenth century, serves primarily as a means of pushing the development of the motif into a more graphically violent depiction of the Passion as well as means of thrusting the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif into much wider usage.

In The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500, Henk van Os argues that there are two types of ‘Man of Sorrows’.  The first type is the crucifixion scene, convenient in that it condenses the suffering of Christ into ‘a single event.’  The crucified ‘Man of Sorrows’, Os writes, ‘was the image that encapsulated Christ’s sacrifice for mankind [including the scourging, crowning with thorns, descent from the cross and entombment], as well as providing an opportunity to express all the emotions aroused by that sacrifice.’2  The second type of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ and the most popular version in late medieval art, features a close-up of sorrowful Christ, standing with lifeless arms crossed, before the cross.  As seen most notably in the Veronica images, the close-up was used ‘as a means of heightening expression and arousing the emotional involvement of the viewer.’3  Much of this second type’s popularity during this period was due to a mosaic that originated in Constantinople, but was brought to the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, a popular pilgrim church.  In order to attract more pilgrims, the Carthusians of Santa Croce launched a publicity campaign in the fifteenth century that employed this mosaic as their centerpiece.4

One of the major visual innovations that made the first type of ‘Man of Sorrows’ possible was the introduction of the three-nail crucifix.  C. M. Kauffmann notes that around 1200 there was a shift from the ‘Romanesque image, where the body hangs straight and the two feet are nailed separately to the cross’ (as in our first two examples from part two), to the crucifix with the feet that were twisted ‘until they are crossed and affixed by one nail.’5  There do exist occasional three-nail crucifixes providing in Early Christian traditions, but it was not until Peter Comestor’s Historia Scholastica, written around 1170, ‘that the three nails were taken as the norm’ in Christian thought.6  An early example of a contorted depiction of the Passion of Christ featuring the three-nail configuration is found in the Chapel of St Silvester in Rome.  Dating back to 1248, this image features Christ’s arms pulled downward under the weight of his body.7

Otto Zöckler states in his classic study, The Cross of Christ, that the three-nail cross was formally introduced into the Christian art tradition by Cimabue in 1300, while his Cruxifix from 12888 (below) maintained the four-nail scheme while hinting at the future adoption of a three-nail crucifix in the contortion of Christ’s body.

Despite traditionalist warnings condemning the use of a three-nail crucifix, this new tradition prevailed even through St Birgitta’s visions in 1373, which explicitly testified to the traditional four-nail crucifix.9  Kauffmann argues that the main reason for the ‘rapid spread and universal appearance of the three-nail crucifix’ is largely due to the emphasis on physical torture in the literary traditions of the thirteenth century.10  Like Kauffmann, Anne Clark argues that literature at this time typically elaborates details of the Passion in order to evoke ‘a strong emotional response of compassion in the reader or hearer of the text.’  Furthermore, Clark sees that while this particular evocation was the stated agenda of many Passion texts, it was also the ‘(unstated) agenda of late medieval Christian art.’11  Kauffmann notes that it was not uncommon to elaborate tradition in the centuries leading up to the explosion of the popularity of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif.  One example of this is found in picture cycles from about 1230 onward, in which Christ, after the Flagellation, carries his cross to Golgotha, no longer robed in the kingly robes from the ‘Christ in Victory’ motif, but half naked, dressed in a loin cloth.  Though this humiliation is not demonstrated in the Gospel tradition,12 ‘[the] pictoral tradition of showing him half naked served to attach the scene to the Crucifixion and to emphasise the humility of Christ.’13  In the words of influential German art historian Otto von Simson,

‘The Christian artist must seek to approach God through the affect of compassionate love.  He must seek to awaken these affects in others in order to establish the bond of similitude between God and the contemplator of His image.  This is the religious mission of the emotionalism of all Gothic art.’14

In early man of sorrows it was not unusual to find the Greek inscription ‘Βασιλεὺς τῆς δόξης’ (‘King of Glory’) at the top of the cross.  But this ‘theological nicety’ eventually fades out of the Western ‘Man of Sorrows’ tradition, due to the fact that the Western ‘desire to share [explicitly] in Christ’s suffering was too great.’15  Kelly Holbert, Assistant Curator of Medieval Art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, argues that the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif ‘belongs to a new type of devotional image that began to emerge in the early fourteenth century’, reflecting ‘a greater desire to identify with the suffering Christ comes to the fore, in which he is seen not just as the triumphant king of heaven but also as a man who has endured terrible agonies for the salvation of the world.’16  And what the ‘Man of Sorrows’ has traded for his kingly crown is one composed of thorns, the physical pain of which was emphasised by Caesarius of Heisterbach around 1200.  After St Louis ‘brought the reliquary of the crown of thorns to Paris in 1239 and rebuilt the Sainte Chapelle to house it’, the cult surrounding the crown of thorns became increasingly popular.  Kauffmann notes that while the crown of thorns occasionally appears on the crucified Christ in the thirteenth century, it is much more frequently used in the fourteenth century, and is universally used in the fifteenth century.17

In our next section, The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’, we will look at the way that depictions of the crucifixion in the Late Middle Ages began to employ close-up and life-size images of Christ as the ‘Man of Sorrows’ in order to achieve more effective personal devotion.


1 Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500 (London: Merrell Holberton, 1994), 106.
2 Ibid.
3 C. M. Kauffmann, Biblical Imagery in Medieval England, 700-1550 (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2003), 181.
4 Os, 110.
5 Kauffmann, 178.
6 Ibid.
7 Otto Zöckler, The Cross of Christ (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1877), 203.
8 Cimabue, Crucifix, 1288, San Domenico, Arezzo.  Web Gallery of Art, ‘Paintings of the Crucifixion’; Available from http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/g/grunewal/2isenhei/1view/; Internet; accessed 30 April 2011.
9 Ibid, 204.
10 Kauffmann, 178.
11 Anne L. Clark, ‘Venerating the Veronica: Varieties of Passion Piety in the Later Middle Ages,’ Material Religion 3, no. 2 (July 2007), 172.
12 Matthew 27:31 – ‘After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.’
13 Kauffmann, 176-177.
14 Clark, 172.
15 Os, 108.
16 Sarah Blick and Rita Tekippe, eds., Art and Architecture of Late Medieval Pilgrimage in Northern Europe and the British Isles (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 361.
17 Kauffmann, 181.


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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