This is the last 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, fourth, fifth, and sixth parts to catch up.
- Theological and ecclesiastical developments in the Western Church
- Social and cultural developments in the Western Church
- The conflated ‘Man of Sorrows’
- The intimate ‘Man of Sorrows’
- Grünewald’s masterpiece
When we look back at artistic depictions of the crucifixion of Christ we see some dramatic changes take place over a relatively short period of time in the Late Middle Ages. Throughout this series we have briefly looked at some of the motivations behind this evolution. Within Christian thought, the emphasis on the imitation of Christ took shape through the works of influential writers like St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventura. Ecclesiastical developments, such as those established with the Fourth Lateran Council (which officially established the Church practises of confession and penance) encouraged members of the Roman Catholic Church to make their religion more personal. The rise in popularity of pilgrimages at this resulted in the demand for ‘spiritual’ pilgrimages, which made room for greater personal devotion in the Church. These things combined with a general sense of mortality and macabre in the Late Middle Ages made it possible for more violent images of the crucifixion to be incorporated into Christian devotion. Through all of this, the image of Christ would shift from one of victory to one of empathetic suffering, which we see brilliantly attested to in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece.
In a similar way that Bonaventura’s Meditations and John’s Gospel depicting Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha and the non-Scriptural, post-Flagellation depictions of Christ half-naked on the way to be crucified, in the Isenheim Altarpiece we see a mutilated Christ on the cross, a true ‘Man of Sorrows’, stricken with St Anthony’s Fire. As in the Synoptic Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion it is likely that—historically speaking—Simon of Cyrene carried the cross to Golgotha. But in the end it was Christ, not Simon who tasted the true bitterness of the cross, the ultimate suffering of a whole human, visible and invisible. And although there is no Scriptural depiction of Christ with St Anthony’s Fire and even though it is highly improbable—even impossible—that Christ historically experienced this infirmity, looking back to the Suffering Servant section found in Isaiah—theologically speaking—Christ bore all infirmities (53:4-12). It was therefore, in the context of great suffering (especially in the hospital context of Isenheim) and the developing air of a sort of ‘humanism’ in Europe (inspired in part by the Franciscan mediation on the humanity of Christ and in Isenheim on the eve of the Renaissance) we see the common and justifiable presentation by artists not as much concerned with the literal portrayal of the Gospel events as they were with the theological and devotional significance of the Passion of Christ, one that ultimately reflects the great compassion of God with great effect.
This theological significance—that the compassionate God of the universe is present and empathetic in even the most extreme of suffering—is the aim of Lawton’s Christ with AIDS, which was commissioned in 1994 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to be reproduced in the AIDS-stricken context of St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town, South Africa.1 This piece vividly demonstrates the lasting impact, acceptance, justifiability and effectiveness of the ‘Man of Sorrows’ motif through the ages. In 2006, Maxwell Lawton died after a fourteen-year struggle with AIDS, but from looking at Christ with AIDS2 we can conclude with a great deal of certainty that he experienced the empathy of God through Christ in his own suffering.3
1 ‘Healing Art,’ The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of Virginia Commonwealth University (Spring 2006), 9.
2 Maxwell Lawton, Man of Sorrows: Christ with AIDS, 1994, St George’s Cathedral, Cape Town. Maxwell Lawton, ‘Maxwell Lawton: Gallery’; Available from http://www.maxwelllawton.com/Flash/gallery.html; Internet; accessed 28 April 2011.
3 ‘D.C. Painter Merged His Grieving Spirit With Artistic Vision,’ The Washington Post (15 October 2006) Metro, C07.