The Crucifixion in Art and Theology

Author: Dr Roland Chia

More than forty years ago, the New Testament scholar Ernst Käseman noted that ‘The sole distinguishing feature that radically separates Christianity and its Lord from other religions and their gods is the cross’.

The apostle Paul warns us that the idea of a crucified God will leave the world incredulous if not offended – it is scandalous to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23). But to those who are being saved, the apostle stresses, it is the power and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1: 24).

Throughout the history of the church, artists and theologians have in their own ways tried to penetrate the mystery of the cross.

Their stammering attempts to articulate that mystery – respectively on canvas and scroll – complement each other in profound ways that demand more attention that they have hitherto received. Together they help the thoughtful Christian to more fully appreciate the meaning of the Scriptural testimony of the death of our Saviour.

In the limited space of this article, I hope to reflect theologically on the paintings of two Renaissance artists – Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528) and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, more famously known as Raphael (1483-1520). It must be pointed out at the outset that while Raphael imbibed the atmosphere of the Italian High Renaissance, Grünewald largely preferred the Gothic style to the classicism of the Renaissance of his native Germany.

As theologian David Brown explains: ‘Raphael was a contemporary of Grünewald’s but unlike Grünewald was part of the High Renaissance and so did not share the same Northern Gothic assumptions that had inspired Grünewald’. This in part explains their very different styles and approaches.

Be that as it may, their strikingly different portrayals of the crucifixion yield great insights into the mystery of the cross. Together they are able to shed light on the significance of the crucifixion that neither one of the paintings has the capacity to do so without the other.

The Grünewald Crucifixion

We begin with the Grünewald Crucifixion which is arguably one of the most horrific and painful depictions of the death of the Saviour ever painted. What is even more remarkable is the fact that this painting is part of the Isenheim Altarpiece, whose purpose is to draw the congregation into contemplative worship.

The cross is set against a dark background to depict ‘crucifixion darkness’ – the darkened sky in daytime – reported in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 15:33; Matthew 27:45; Luke 23:44-45). Eschewing the idea that this was an eclipse, the father of Latin theology, Tertullian (155-240) describes it as a ‘world-portent’ and made it quite clear that the Romans had witnessed the phenomenon and recorded it in their archives.

Without doubt the most important feature of the Grünewald Crucifixion is the mangled body of the Saviour to which the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn. Much has been written about the human body in Renaissance art, but Grünewald’s portrayal of Christ’s body – riddled as it is with the brutal wounds of torture – is surely stylistically unique.

Close inspection of the body of Jesus would reveal that it is almost entirely ravaged by the cruel lashes it had suffered. Innumerable pieces of thorns or broken wood can be found embedded in the torn flesh, even as the crown of thorns sinks torturously into his head. The skin on his twisted and contorted body is besmirched and discoloured, and at his side there is a gapping and bleeding wound inflicted by a soldier’s spear.

The body of Christ slumps as if pressed down by the weight of an invisible object, but his fingers reach upwards as if making a final appeal to his Father whose will he has come to fulfil. Even Grünewald’s depiction of the structure of the cross bears an important message. The wood of the cross appears strained and bent as if bearing a heavy weight.

What Grünewald hopes to portray in all of this is that this tortured human being who died in utter humiliation is the Saviour who carries the sins of the whole world!

The Christ in the Grünewald Crucifixion is a figure of abject horror. It reminds the viewer of the haunting words of Isaiah: ‘He had no form that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not’ (53:2-3).

The great Swiss German theologian Karl Barth summarises the essence of the Grünewald Crucifixion thus: ‘Its subject is the incarnation’. Barth is of course absolutely right! In the grotesque figure of Christ here depicted, we are invited to come to a deeper understanding of self-giving love of the incarnate One who came not to be served but to serve (Matthew 20:28).

The artist appears to be saying that it is in the horrible death of this man that we get a glimpse of the glory of God and the exact tracing of his cruciform love. In the pathos of the cross is revealed the God who is love.

Barth writes: ‘This is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ. It cannot run over to the right side, where the glory of God can be seen directly. It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself’.

The portrayal of John the Baptist in the Grünewald Crucifixion is also significant theologically. That Grünewald places John the Baptist at the foot of the cross demonstrates that the artist is interested in more than mere reportage – an accurate account of this historical event. He is an artist-theologian whose main aim is to communicate on canvas the theological significance of Calvary.

What is of note is that John is depicted as pointing to the cross. The extended index finger is a deliberate attempt on the part of the artist to emphasise the Baptist’s role as a witness. Barth understood this well when he notes that ‘John the Baptist, in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point’.

In John we get an insight into the goal of the Church’s mission. As God’s witness in the world the church could also do no more than just point to the cross and say: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!’ (John 1:29).

The Mond Crucifixion

When we compare Grünewald’s depiction of the cross with the Mond Crucifixion by Raphael, we are immediately struck by how radically different they are.

The Mond Crucifixion was originally an altarpiece for the Church of San Domenico in Citta di Castello. The painting arguably exemplifies the best of the Florentine tradition of High Renaissance art, skilfully combined with the Peruginesque style that Raphael acquired from his master, the famous painter Pietro Perugino of the Umbrian school.

While the background in the Grünewald Crucifixion depicts darkness and gloom, the cross in The Mond Crucifixion is set against the beauty and serenity of the Italian countryside. The lush greenery and blue sky represent the qualities of order and harmony that are so characteristic of Renaissance art in general and Raphael’s works in particular.

The body of the Saviour in the Mond Crucifixion is beautiful and bears no evidence of the torture to which it had been subjected, safe of course the wounds on the hands, feet and side. Christ looks remarkably tranquil with no obvious sign of pain, as if asleep (a common euphemism for death). His body appears almost weightless as it is suspended serenely on the cross, without any sign whatsoever of strain. The cross in the Mond Crucifixion is a simple, symmetrical structure, quite unlike the rugged cross in the Grünewald Crucifixion.

 ‘At first sight’, writes David Brown, ‘the way Raphael paints the crucifixion may well seem shallow by comparison’. But to come to such a conclusion, however, is to miss ‘the word of the cross’ that Raphael wishes to convey in the Mond Crucifixion.

For the historical facticity of Christ’s death on the cross – though obviously important – is not the only or even the main thing that the artist wishes to communicate. Like the Grünewald Crucifixion, the Mond Crucifixion is also theology on canvas. It is rich in symbolism. It bears a message. It functions as a theological text.

The cross of Christ in the Mond Crucifixion unites time and eternity, heaven and earth. That the cross unites time and eternity is suggested by the figures around it, both human and angelic. And that it unites heaven and earth is seen in the way the cross is at once rooted in the ground and stretches to the skies.

In depicting the Jesus as free from agony, Raphael is not presenting a docetic Christology that reduces the humanity of Christ into a phantasm. Rather, he hopes to portray the sovereignty of God in this drama of salvation. Amidst all the violence and the chaos, God is in perfect control and he has won the victory in Christ (Christus Victor).

Raphael takes full advantage of leitmotifs of Renaissance art to bring this out. In the death of Christ on the cross, the confusion and pain of human existence – even death itself – is removed. So we are invited to embrace the victorious Christ by faith, and experience peace and hope.

 The Mond Crucifixion is therefore a metaphor of deliverance from sin and death and the transformation of despair into hope!

The careful viewer of the painting would notice that Raphael has not forgotten about the sacraments. Although the medieval church has seven sacraments, Raphael highlights only two: baptism (suggested by the lake behind the cross) and the Eucharist (the collection of Christ’s blood by the angels – a rather crude depiction of transubstantiation). Both these sacraments are featured because of their profound relationship to the salvific death of Christ on the cross.

Much more can be said about the painting. For example, the various roles of the human figures of Mary Magdalene, John the apostle, and Jerome (the bearded figure) can be explored with profit. But because of space, we’ll have to leave this for another occasion.

In their unique and irreplicable ways, the two paintings testify that in the horror of the cross is revealed the saving grace of God. They approvingly echo the words of the apostle, quoted earlier, that the cross is the wisdom and the power of God for those who are being saved.

Put differently the portrayals of the crucifixion by Grünewald and Raphael testify that in the ugliness of the cross, we see ever more clearly the beauty and splendour of God, his glory. And it is in the tragedy of the cross that we see the riches of God’s grace.

As Hans Urs von Balthasar perceptively puts it:

The Spirit of love cannot teach the Cross to the world in any other way than by disclosing the full depths of the guilt that the world bears, a guilt that comes to light on the Cross and is the only thing that makes the Cross intelligible. Indeed, it is in the God-forsakenness of the Crucified One that we come to see what we have been redeemed and saved from: the definitive loss of God, a loss we could never have spared ourselves through any of our own efforts outside of grace.

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