Sacred Objects

Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part IV (The Medieval Period: Painted Crosses and Altarpieces)

November 27, 2007

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In the previous articles of this series I have surveyed the history and iconography of the cross/crucifix in Christian liturgy. We have seen how early Christian iconography, originally displaying great reticence in the depiction of the Lord’s suffering and death, gradually developed the imagery of Christus victor and then Christus mortuus. Most of the images we looked at were sculpted images, but there is also a rich treasury of painted images worth considering.

Painted Cross from LuccaThroughout the early Christian and medieval periods Italian art was strongly influenced by Byzantine art, because of the steady contact the Italian city-states maintained with the East. Consequently, two-dimensional, painted crucifixes were more common than three-dimensional, sculpted ones. These monumental painted crosses functioned as altarpieces; the cross shape was often enlarged or altered to make room for figures of Mary and John and/or scenes from the life of Christ. They were often suspended at the entrance to the sanctuary or mounted on the wall behind the altar.

Copy of the San Damiano CrossThe most famous cross from this group is the San Damiano Cross, because of its association with St. Francis of Assisi. According to the legend of St. Francis, while he was in prayer before the altar of the church of San Damiano, Jesus spoke to him from the cross. A reproduction of this cross still hangs in the church (the original is now housed in the Church of Santa Chiara in Assisi). The image is of the Christus victor type.


Painted Cross by CimabueThe Christus victor type gradually gave way to the Christus mortuus type in the thirteenth century and so the majority of the painted crosses are of the Christus mortuus type. Following their Byzantine prototypes, the artists created graceful, curved bodies with a stylized rendering of the muscles and drapery and little or no shading. One of the best known of these works is the crucifix by Cimabue (c. 1240-c.1302).


Painted Cross by Giotto


Giotto (1266-1337), regarded as a precursor of the Italian Renaissance, is perhaps medieval Italy’s greatest artist. Giotto used the established cross-shaped frame, but he departed from the Byzantine style, using realistic shading and perspective to give a sense of three-dimensionality. He also humanized the figures, by portraying human emotion. The figures of Mary and John, which in the example are reduced to half figures placed at the ends of the horizontal arms of the cross, show an emotional response to the death of the savior.

Fresco by Fra AngelicoThe art of the fresco, painting on wet plaster, was very common in Italy, as well. The early Renaissance artist, Fra Angelico (1387-1455), painted a number of beautiful crucifixion images for the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence. The image included here, one of a series of small frescoes in the friars’ cells, shows Dominic among the biblical figures at the foot of the cross, which was common in the middle ages and early Renaissance. The anachronism suggests that through prayer and sacrament, the mysteries of Christ are still present to us.

Crucifixion by van der WeydenNorth of the Alps, artists of the so-called Northern Renaissance used the same conceit to produce altarpieces full of symbolism. Biblical scenes were often portrayed in contemporary settings and even completely out of historical context, such as the example shown here. In this altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), the crucifixion scene is set in the foreground of the nave of a gothic church. In the background, a priest celebrates the mass. The catechetical intent is obvious: the sacrifice of the cross is made present in the celebration of the eucharist.

Most of our older churches had an ornate, sculpted reredos that served as a shrine for the tabernacle and crucifix. In modern churches, on the other hand, the reredos is usually replaced with a large (as often as not, too large) crucifix. It seems to me that a painted crucifix might be an interesting alternative. Such a cross might include the figures of Mary and John, or scenes from the life of Christ like some of the examples shown here. Equally worth considering is an altarpiece or triptych. Early Christian iconography exhibits a desire to proclaim the entirety of the paschal mystery: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ as well as the hope of his return in glory. One manner of achieving that desire is some form of Christus victor imagery; another is to show the crucifixion in the context of a series of images from the life of Christ.

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 V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods - Drama and Emotion
    Part VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

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