History, Theology & religion, Visual art

The Evolution of the Crucifixion in Art, part V – The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’

This is the fifth 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, third, and fourth 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 intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’

The earliest known example of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif, featuring a close-up of sorrowful Christ, standing with lifeless arms crossed, before the cross (the second type referred to in our last post), was discovered in the 1970s, and dates back to around 1300, as previously mentioned.   In the restored version of this piece we see a triptych, with the ‘Man of Sorrows’ in the centre, the Virgin Mary on his left and St John the Evangelist on his right.  Os argues that here ‘it is not wounds, the crown of thorns or a sorrowful expression that identify the subject as Christ’s Passion’, as this ‘Man of Sorrows’ is lacking such effects.  Os writes, ‘His head is merely inclined slightly to the side, and his eyes are closed.  That is enough to arouse the compassion of the Virgin and St John, who share His Suffering.’1  It seems that what compels Os to consider this expressly a ‘Man of Sorrows’ is based upon the slumping of Christ’s head (in another analysis Os notes that the ‘most striking feature’ of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif ‘is the asymmetrical silhouette…’2) and the empathetic responses of the Virgin and John.

The Virgin Mary is often used as the ‘model for this compassion…for her pain…was fundamentally imaginative.’3  Fulton argues that in Mary we see the ‘appropriately human response to Christ’s sacrifice, the fullest expression of love of which a human being was capable in thinking on and gazing upon the face of the God-man.’4  And just as Mary was not (directly) physically afflicted by the death of Christ, the Christian is not expected to physically experience the extreme sufferings of Christ.  Instead, Mary acts as a conduit through which the devotee may experience the ‘grief of seeing one’s beloved [son] tormented this way.’5  The fourteenth-century Passion narrative, The Complaint of Our Lady, is written from the perspective Mary, describing the Passion and her own grief in witnessing it:

I looked to my sweet son and saw how that the wicked Jews had set him in a chair and put a reed in his hand in token of a king’s scepter, and afterwards they came with a sharp crown of thorns and set that same sharp crown upon his head so hard that the thorns pierced into the bone of his head.  And they said, ‘God save you, king of the Jews.’  And when they had done this they scratched his sweet face so foully that the blood ran down his head and that same scratching did away with all the fair sight of his sweet visage.  And then I had so much sorrow that I thought that each thorn went through my heart.6

Similarly, the German mystic Heinrich Suso (1295-1366) writes as Mary beholding her dead son in a Pietà scene:

I took my tender Child on my lap and looked at Him, but He was dead; I looked at Him again and again, there was neither awareness nor voice.  Behold, my heart then died again, and could have shattered into a thousand pieces from those mortal wounds it received.  It gave many inner bottomless sighs; the eyes shed many heartbroken, bitter tears, my mien became utterly miserable.7

Thus far we have briefly analysed some key theological (such as the Franciscan Rule and its stress on the humanity of Christ), ecclesiastical (such as Lateran IV, its mandate regarding penance, and various ways to enact penance such as physical and ‘spiritual’ pilgrimages) and the cultural/societal developments in Europe in the Late Middle Ages (such as new printing innovations, the affects of the Black Death and a culture of mortality and the founding of hospitals), and how those factors played into the establishment, development and proliferation of ‘Man of Sorrows’ images in Europe, along with a brief look at Marian Passion devotion.  In the foreword to Art & Devotion in Late Medieval Ireland, Colum Hourihane writes:

We can see how the art and texts of this period move the worshipper over time from compassio to imitatio – from an understanding to an actual involvement in Christ’s pain and suffering. … The emotions which these works were designed to evoke are amongst the most interesting aspect of their creation. … As powerful as the written word was in this period it does not compare to the impact that the visual must have had.  Over time we can see an increasing visual and textual emphasis on the minutiae of Christ’s suffering in all its graphic detail.8

With this in mind we now have a better foundation for understanding the incredibly moving Isenheim Altarpiece in our next section, Grünewald’s masterpiece.


1 Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500 (London: Merrell Holberton, 1994), 106.
2 Ibid, 120.
3 Anne L. Clark, ‘Venerating the Veronica: Varieties of Passion Piety in the Later Middle Ages,’ Material Religion 3, no. 2 (July 2007), 171.
4 Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ & the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 199-200.
5 Clark, 171-172.
6 Ibid, 172.
7 Os, 104.
8 Rachel Moss, Colmán Ó Clabaigh, Salvador Ryan, eds., Art and Devotion in Late Medieval Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006), xvii-xviii.

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.

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