Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part III (The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus)
October 30, 2007
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Just as it took Christians five centuries to depict Christ on the cross, it took another four hundred years for Christians to depict the death of Christ on the cross. The first images of the death of Christ on the cross appeared in the East in the late eighth century at the end of the Iconoclastic controversy. I shall refer to these images as Christus mortuus (literally, the dead Christ).
In some of the early Christus mortuus images Jesus is depicted just as he was in the Christus victor imagery, except that his eyes are closed in death.
In others, he is depicted with a gracefully curved body, a bowed head and closed eyes. The curve of the body suggests death in a very stylized manner. In many images there is a skull at the foot of the cross. This refers to the legend which held that Jesus was crucified directly above the burial site of Adam. The legend is an allusion to the Pauline theology of Christ as the second Adam (Rom. 5).
The iconography of Christus mortuus came to the West in the tenth century. Throughout the middle ages almost all the images of this type reveal their indebtedness to eastern icons. One of the earliest examples is the Gero crucifix in the Cologne Cathedral, dating from the end of the tenth century. From its stylized pose and stiff drapery, it was clearly made using an icon as a model.
Another example is a carved wood cross from the Abbey of Melk, dating from the late twelfth century.
There is a distinctive form of the Christus mortuus image from the medieval period that was very popular in the Scandinavian countries, Poland and Spain. Christ wears a royal crown, not a crown of thorns. This type clearly points beyond death to the resurrection.
What characterizes the crucifixes from tenth to the thirteenth centuries, it seems to me, is a noble serenity. This serenity derives from the Byzantine icons that inspired them. The power of the icon lies in its ability to transport the viewer to the mystery the image represents. It is a spiritual image set in the context of the eternal.
A very different depiction of the death of Christ appeared in the fourteenth century following the Black Death. During a period of two or three years in the middle of the century somewhere between one-third and one-half of Europe’s population succumbed to the plague. The crucifixes and painted altarpieces of the period reveal a preoccupation with suffering and death.
In the late Middle Ages in Germany and the low countries, painted altarpieces became very popular. Frequently, the central image of the triptych was the crucifixion. The suffering of Jesus was emphasized, perhaps even exaggerated. The images were intended to arouse an emotional response from the viewer.
The Christus mortuus images do not point to the resurrection in the same way as the Christus victor images we looked at earlier. But the stylized poses and the serenity of the images remove them from the devotional crucifixes that were popular in the later centuries. In their historical context, these devotional crucifixes had a great poignancy; they helped the people of the time see their own suffering in the light of Christ’s suffering and their grief in the light of Mary’s grief.
The question, it seems to me, is whether emphasis on the suffering of Christ belongs to the liturgy or to private devotion. For me, the restrained images of the earlier periods, whether Christus victor or Christus mortuus, better suit the liturgical setting, because, in various ways, they point to the death and resurrection. There is no reason, however, why a church cannot have a liturgical crucifix and a shrine devoted to the suffering of Jesus. This is particularly true of communities that have experienced or continue to experience suffering or oppression.
In my own work, I have found that people respond to the beauty of Christus mortuus images from the medieval period. One example is piece designed for a reconciliation chapel. It is a cross on a standard with a shelf to hold the scriptures. The image of Jesus is a copy of the Gero Crucifix.
Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, IL.
READ OTHER ARTICLES BY RONALD ZAWILLA:
Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly
+ Part I: The Early Christian Period: Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata
+ Part II: The Early Christian Period: Christus Victor
+ Part III: The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus
+ Part IV: The Medieval Period: Painted Crosses and Altarpieces
+ Part V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotions
+ Part VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art