Sacred Objects

Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part V (The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotion)

November 27, 2007

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Crucufixion by MichelangeloThe Italian Renaissance, with its emphasis on the values of classical humanism, gave new status to the artist. No longer merely servants or craftsmen, artists imbued their works with their own individual vision and genius. Inspired by classical art, artists became absorbed with naturalism, albeit idealized, and perspective, light and shadow. Renaissance artists imitated classical serenity and detachment, while Baroque artists emphasized the drama and emotion in their subjects.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), for example, secretly dissected human cadavers in order to understand the structure of the human body. Around that time, early in his career, he produced a small crucifix for the Church of Santo Spirito in Florence. It is noteworthy (apart from its total nudity) for its simplicity and idealized beauty.

Massacio TrinityA fresco by Masaccio (1401-1428) in the Florentine Church of Santa Maria Novella shows a remarkable iconography that radically departs from tradition. God the Father supports the cross of Jesus as John contemplates the death of the savior and Mary invites the viewer to do the same. The early Christians were ambivalent about art, because of the biblical prohibition of idolatry. The compromise which ended the iconoclastic controversy in 787 forbade any depiction of God in human form, but allowed the depiction of Jesus, because of the incarnation.

Altdorfer CrucifixionThe drama of the crucifixion is evident in a canvas by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538). Departing from the conventional frontal representation of the scene, Altdorfer looks at the scene from the left. One of the executioners, climbing up a ladder to break Jesus’ legs, sees that he is already dead. The death of Jesus is very realistically portrayed, the body pulled forward by its own weight. It is Mary, however, being consoled in the foreground by John and the other women, who really seems to command our attention.

V ouet CrucifixionAnother interesting perspective on the crucifixion is shown in Simon Vouet’s (1590-1649) painting in the Church of the Gesù in Rome, the burial place of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is as if the viewer is standing at the foot of the cross, looking up at the figure of Jesus, who, in turn, is looking toward heaven. Whereas early Christian and medieval artists were more intent upon narration, artists of the late Renaissance and Baroque became more interested in exploring the human drama of their subjects. It is not irrelevant to point out that the Baroque era gave birth to grand opera and it is also perhaps worth noting that this unusual depiction provided the artist an opportunity to display his virtuosity with perspective and lighting.

Crucifixion by RembrandtThe drama of the crucifixion is vividly portrayed in a painting by Rembrandt (1606-1669). In this instance the moment in the drama the artist has chosen to capture is the moment the cross with Jesus nailed to it is being raised and set in the ground. We do not see the usual cast of characters, Mary, John and the other women, but rather the executioners. What adds further to the drama is that Rembrandt has chosen to depict them as seventeenth-century Dutchmen. The dramatic lighting focuses our attention on the figure of Jesus being lifted up.

Zurbaran CrucufixionThe final image by the Spanish artist Zurbarán (1598-1664) brings us back to the simple composition with which we are most familiar the frontal representation of Christ on the cross. In this instance the artist has given us a human figure of great beauty with finely articulated muscles and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting.

If my presentation of these works has been overly critical, it is to make a point. The Italian Renaissance introduced the notion of artistic individuality and genius. The artist interprets the subject from his/her own unique perspective. This artistic vision has the ability to make see something familiar in a new way and, in a religious context, perhaps to be moved, or even jolted or disturbed.

My point is simply this: art for the liturgical assembly or its areas of private prayer and devotion must be an expression of the community and must be embraceable by the entire community. That does not mean that sacred art is to be reduced to the lowest common denominator like much of the art we see in religious goods catalogs. Anonymous artists and iconographers of the distant past were able to rise to great heights, even as they remained utterly faithful to the iconographic tradition. We can see that as well in Michelangelo’s crucifix and Zurbarán’s painting. The works are compelling not because of their novelty, but because of the artistic skill evident in their production.

Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, Illinois.


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 VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

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