Curatorial Essay of Crucifixion Art
I am studying depictions of The Crucifixion in the middle ages ranging from the eight through twelfth century. Additionally, each piece is of a different coverage which will give more insight to the various ways each culture portrayed Christ on the cross. The pieces I will be looking at are a gospel cover, a triptych remain, a mosaic in a church, and a sculpture in a church. By studying these objects together in an exhibition we can see how Christ’s characteristics were depicted by different areas and cultures of the eastern world through evoking of emotions as well as through principles of design.
The first object of focus is the cover of the Lindau Gospels, “Crucifixion and Mourning Figures”, made in 870. This piece is a gold and jewel encrusted cover of a manuscript containing illuminations. The cover is an example of Carolingian art made in eastern France. At the top center we can see the personification of the moon and sun as hunched and weak figures. The sun (sol) is missing his rays which shows the darkness that was brought about from the crucifixion of Christ. The artist shows the event as detrimental because Christ is no longer the leader on earth, and people will merely be connected through death. The most important thing to notice is the various use of lines to evoke different emotions in the surrounding figures from the image of Christ himself. Heavily curved lines are used in the bottom figures to create hunched and crippled mourners that contrast greatly with the stronger vertical lines of the powerful Christ. This contrast allows us to feel Christ’s strength and how he is greater. The Carolingian artists depict Christ as a figure feeling no pain and no suffering. His limbs are straight and defying gravity. The only sense of suffering that is portrayed in this piece are the drops of blood falling from his hands as he courageously dies for our sins. Additionally, Christ is surrounded by jewels and precious gemstones showing his royalty and prominence in society.
The second piece I have been studying is the small remain of a Byzantine Triptych made from ivory in the mid tenth century. Although this is also a representation of the crucifixion, Christ is not portrayed as the same strong figure in this ivory carving. His limbs are falling to the Earth and his head is hanging low showing suffering. The bones in his body have also been carved to show starvation and a weak Christ figure. Once again Mary and St. John are mourning, but not in the same helpless way as the mourners on the Lindau Gospel cover. Without these strong mourners Christ loses his powerful figure and the artist can convey more feelings of pity and suffering. In this carving we see life around the crucified Christ continuing past his death through the roman soldiers who are gambling below him for his robe and other personal belongings. In a way, this shows the value of Christ and his standing in society, but it also creates a more casual take on the death of Christ for our sins. Even with this casual portrayal, the artist shows the triumph over evil by using the cross as a weapon to pierce Hades, ruler of the underworld, in his stomach. By using strong vertical lines in the surrounding figures and architecture, the Byzantine artist created a Crucifixion scene in a casual manner while still showing Christ’s victories and his importance to overcoming evil.
The third piece is a mosaic in the San Clemente Church in Rome from the twelfth century. This piece is a Romanesque style mosaic using gold tesserae irregularly to show the royalty of Christ as he dies on the cross by heightening the reflection and color. This piece is very different in the way that it shows the triumph of Christ’s death by depicting the afterlife. This is shown through the tree of eternal life which emerges from the cross on which Christ was crucified. The tree connects from the roots of earth and reaches up to heaven which joins the two to express the victory of eternal life. God’s hand is also descending from heaven with the victor’s wreath which is the classical symbol of triumph. God is handing this wreath to Jesus as he triumphs over evil and sins thus creating eternal life in heaven. The artist of this piece created a calm and triumphant scene through the use of doves and other birds throughout the mosaic. Doves are a symbol of peace thus showing that Christ’s death is only something to be thankful for and welcome into worship.
The final piece I have been looking at is an over life-sized wood sculpture in the Cologne Church of Germany, the “Gero Crucifix”. This sculpture was made in 970 and is from the Ottonian style of art. This is one of the most lifeless depictions of Christ from the Medieval east and is the first depiction of Christ on the Cross as a suffering figure rather than triumphant. The muscular structure of Christ has been deformed by the artist to show the pain and suffering that Christ endured for us. It is an image that does not make us proud and happy of the pain that he went through to save us from sin. His limbs and head are lifeless and drooping to the floor. The sculpture is so much larger than human dimension to really express how much greater Christ was than anyone on this earth and what he went through to save us. It is a painful sculpture to view as it brings emotions of pity and suffering upon the holy savior.
These four pieces of art are so important to view together as they give insight on how each medieval culture viewed The Crucifixion of Christ and how the elements of design were used to do so. In the Lindau gospel cover we can see the use of straight lines in the figure of Christ to show a strong saviour figure while the use of straight lines were used in the other figures of the triptych to show the strength that Christ’s death brought upon humans. In the Gero crucifix, curved and sagging lines were used on Christ’s body to convey a suffering figure and show the pain brought upon Christ as he brought eternal life and forgiveness. Additionally, as the art became more three dimensional and used more relief and detail, the suffering becomes clearer and the emotions brought upon the viewers are stronger and more difficult to escape. From each piece studied we can note the most prominent views of Christ in each culture. We can see that the Carolingian style sees Christ as something other than human, something greater and more royal. This is seen by the use of jewels around him as well as the less realistic structure of Christ’s body as he feels no pain dying on the cross. The Byzantine style is shown to depict Christ as someone who brings strength upon us through the use of strong lines in the earthly figures rather than in Christ. In the Romanesque style we can see the importance of the resurrection in their worshiping of Christ. Christ is shown as a victor who connects Earth to heaven which gives feelings of hope and relief for the future and allows Earth to feel a closer connection to him. This scene is very different from the others in the way the artist wanted to express the resurrection and eternal life as a reward for Christ’s death rather than bringing on emotions of pain and hurt to the viewer. Lastly, we can see the new idea of a suffering Christ in the Ottonian style through the use of drooping lines and deformed body parts to show what Christ had to endure. Although each piece is very different from one another, we can feel a story in each one that connects Earth closer to Christ and shows the things he endured to save everyone and create the best life and eternal life possible. By studying these objects in one exhibit we can gain insight as to how each culture and time period worshiped Christ during the medieval years in the East.
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Stokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.