||Issue Date: 12 / 2012
The Art of the Cross
The Crucifixion is a well known and pervasive subject in European art dating from the early 5th century in Rome. During the Middle Ages the Crucifixion was a relatively small size and appears in illuminated manuscripts, ornate gospel covers, ornamental pages of New Testament text, Byzantine mosaics and later in Gothic stained glass windows. The first monumental Crucifixion, the famous Gero Crucifix (965-970), Cologne Cathedral, Germany, is the oldest Western depiction of a dead Christ on the cross and also the first life sized image. By the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods the Crucifixion is a frequent subject in European art. However, modern and recent depictions of the Crucifixion are less known and often surprising in their variety and meaning.
Georges Rouault, Le Christ en
Cross, 1936, color aquatint,
25 x 19 1/4 inches, Collection of
Saint Mary's Museum of Art, Gift
of the Stricker family
The Art of the Cross, currently at Saint Mary’s College Art Museum, Moraga, California, October 6 – December 16, 2012, is a unique exhibition of crosses and Crucifixions dating from the 6th century through the present. Traveling throughout the United States since 2006, the exhibition consists of paintings, prints and sculpture from the Edward and Diane Knippers Collection, Arlington, Virginia and organized by Christians in the Visual Arts. The exhibition travels next to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Belton, Texas, January 7 – February 1, 2013.
Edward Knippers is one of the founders of Christians in the Visual Arts, a contemporary effort to explore the Christian faith and biblical narrative in the visual arts. He has been collecting religious art for 35 years. Knippers is a painter and printmaker whose religious nudes have created controversy. Knippers has participated in over one hundred one-man national and international exhibitions. His stark, black, abstract lithograph, Crucifixion, n.d., shows the influence of the German Expressionist artists.
The cross as a symbol dates from prehistory. One of the oldest cross symbols is a simple circle containing a cross, a union of opposite polarities. Its meaning is as mysterious as its maker. However, the oldest artifact in this exhibition is a small coin containing a cross dating from the Byzantine Empire, circa 512-17 A.D.
The early Christians used symbols such as the pagan trident, the crux ansata inherited from the Egyptians, the X cross and Tau cross to deter identification and possible persecution by the Romans. Since there were virtually no skilled artists among the early Christians, they borrowed ideas from Roman imagery, but it was often crudely executed.
Crucifixion was used extensively by the ancient Persians, but perfected by the Romans in that it was a slow, cruel, public death with maximum pain. The condemned was crucified naked to enhance the shame and often left on the cross for days. Roman citizens were never crucified. Thus, it is not surprising that the first public image of the Crucifixion did not appear in Western art until 432 A.D. when it was carved in the cypress door of the church of Santa Sabina in Rome.
There are several reasons for the early Christians not creating public images of the Crucifixion. There was a Jewish tradition against images and the early Christians were Jews who continued practicing Judaism. Also, the memory of the Crucifixion was too painful and shameful. Crucifixion was not banned until 337 A.D. by Constantine. The early Christians were a minority sect and using crucifixion as a symbol left them open to ridicule. A graffito was found scratched in the wall of a third century house on the Palatine Hill, Rome. It shows a crudely drawn image of a Roman soldier raising his hand in worship of a donkey on a cross. An inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships God.”
The earliest image of the Crucifixion in this exhibition is a small 15th century anonymous black and white woodcut, a momento mori or reminder of death, showing that even the king must die.
There are also two black and white Baroque engravings by Fra Antonio Lorenzini, an Italian monk and Nicolas Dorigny, a French engraver. Dorigny’s version is the more dramatic of the two engravings while Lorenzini’s version is quieter and more meditative.
While the Baroque period was rife with images of the Crucifixion, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was the last great European religious painter for almost two hundred years because of the rise of the age of rationalism and the middle class, increasing materialism, and pervasive anti-clerical feeling.
Maurice Denis, the French painter and theoretician, was a “Christian painter” who revived an interest in religious art in the late nineteenth century and also influenced Cubism. His color lithograph, At the Foot of the Cross, n. d., shows only the lower legs of Jesus, while his mother and Mary Magdalene weep at his feet. The use of tinted colors softens the gravity of the scene.
In the 20th century the Crucifixion was revived as a subject by a number of major European artists. Golgotha, n.d. a dramatic color intaglio by Georges Rouault (1871-1958) is one of the highlights of the exhibition as its rich colors give the impression that it is an oil painting or stained glass. Rouault is probably the most famous of the twentieth century religious painters and continued the path established by Denis.
Alfred Manessier (1911-1993), another major religious artist of the modern era, returned to Catholicism in 1943 after a retreat at La Grande Trappe de Soligny, the headquarters of the Trappist order. His color lithograph, IX (Three Crosses), n.d. is abstract and stark as the black crosses are surrounded by splashes of red, maroon, purple, brown and green against a stark white background. Expressionism is often the preferred style of religious artists.
Another convert, Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996), was originally a Buddhist. He was a member of a group of Japanese artists who wished to return to Japan’s native folk arts. His Crucifixion (1976), a hand-colored woodcut, is simple and flat with muted red, blue, and green on a light tan background. It is simple, yet expressive.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985), a Russian Jew, frequently used the Crucifixion as an image to express the persecution of the Jews. His images are often colorful and symbolic. His surreal lithograph, Christ in the Clock, n.d., depicts Christ with a clock for a face, surrounded by a floating objects, a large fish, a donkey with a candelabra, a green lioness and various loosely sketched in abstract figures.
A number of modern artists have commented on war through the use of Crucifixion imagery. Otto Dix (1891-1969), a native of Germany, was especially critical as he served in WW I, participated in the Battle of the Somme and was awarded an Iron Cross. He was later considered a degenerate artist by the Nazis. In his lithograph, Christ Carries His Cross, n.d., an abstract modern figure with a large whip flails Christ while faceless figures observe. And in another loosely drawn lithograph, Crucifixion, n.d., the viewer is confronted face to face with Christ, Mary, his mother and St. John.
In Paradise Lost: The Christ of the Camp, an etching by Luc-Albert Moreau (1882-1948), Christ lies on the ground bound in ropes but tries to rise up. Behind him there are piles of dead bodies while in the distance there are guard towers and barracks. Similarly, Bernard Buffet (1928-1999) was a superb draftsman and his expressive, harsh lines reveal an elongated Christ lying at the foot of the cross. A portion of a ladder is visible as are three large nails and a large nail extractor. A fence and guard towers are visible in the distance. Both of these commentaries on the death camps are searing reminders of Germany’s Nazi past and man’s inhumanity.
Outsider art is a term now used to describe art that is expressive, but created by untrained artists, mainly for their own satisfaction and the joy of creativity. Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), the Black Grandma Moses, was illiterate. She was working on Melrose Plantation in northwest Louisiana when she found some paints and brushes and began documenting life on the plantation. Her Crucifixion, n.d., shows a black Christ on the cross while a black angel hovers above. It is simple, but intense. Born in Alabama, Mose Tolliver (1920-2006) turned to art after an industrial accident in which he was physically disabled. He was also dyslexic. In his whimsical Crucifixion, n.d., he used red, blue, green and white house paint on plywood to create a simple, yet expressive image..
Michael Banks (b. 1972), born in north Alabama housing projects, uses found objects and building materials, among others, to create his unique images. Although he also has no formal art training, his Crucifixion, n.d. seems more sophisticated than Clementine and Tolliver’s paintings with its ghost-like face and use of red, pink, green and yellow colors. It recalls the paintings of Jean Dubuffet who coined the term Art Brut (or "raw art").
There are also two contemporary images that are minimal yet evocative. In Law and Grace, n.d., Sandra Bowden uses embossing with gold leaf to present the Ten Commandments on two “tablets.” With a horizontal cut on two adjacent tablets of the Law, the tablets of the Law become four quadrants, suggesting a minimal cross. Jesus came to fulfill the law. Guy Chase’s gouache, Misfit, n.d., appears, at first glance to be a horizontal collage of a file folder. Closer viewing reveals a detailed painting of a file folder and a yellow legal tablet placed horizontally. The artist addresses Christ’s cross as a “misfit” in contemporary society as we easily forget his presence in our lives.
In Jean Charlot’s 14 Stations, n.d., black and white woodcuts, the viewer is presented with a cinematic view of the complete crucifixion cycle from beginning to end. The Stations of the Cross are a series of fourteen artistic representations of Christ carrying his cross on the way to his crucifixion. The cinematic quality of Charlot’s imagery brings to mind the number of films made about the Crucifixion of Christ during the last several decades, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), Martin Sorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s stark black and white film, Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Gibson’s film seems the most historically accurate in his depiction of the grueling flogging and crucifixion scenes.
In addition to film, the Passion theme has also impacted music, for example, Krzystof Penderecki’s contemporary St. Luke Passion (1963-1966) which was composed during the time of Communism in Eastern Europe. While a devoutly religious composition, the Polish composer uses Baroque form and avant-garde experimentalism-serialism, tone clusters and a chorus which shouts, giggles and hisses and Gregorian chant. The text is in Latin. The overall effect of the St. Luke Passion is one of raw emotional expressionism
While the Crucifixion in art is no surprise to those familiar with the history of Western art, it is unexpected that the subject continues to have appeal in our own time, a period devoted to materialism, hedonism and anti religious feeling. Yet, it is also a time in which many search for spirituality. Maurice Denis revived religious art in the late nineteenth century, after it was neglected for over two-hundred years, a trend that became increasingly popular throughout the twentieth century and the present time. While the styles and motivation and meaning may vary dramatically, the subject continues to engage both artists and viewers. It seems that the mystery of suffering and the need to transcend suffering through contemplation and identification with Christ and his cross endures.
Darwin Marable, Ph.D., is a historian, lecturer, critic and
independent curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area.