The Roettgen Pietà, a painted wooden sculpture about three feet high, tells us a couple of important things about Christian devotion in 14th-century Germany.
In German, this subject is called a Vesperbild, an image for use during ritual devotions at sundown. More broadly, it’s an example of an Andachtsbild, an image intended to stimulate meditation. For this reason, the holy figures are isolated from their narrative context and presented in a pose and a moment that amplify the statue’s emotional import.
The body of Jesus has been removed from the cross, and Mary now holds her dead son on her lap and laments his passing. The poignancy of the statue resides in a cluster of double meanings. Just as Mary once held the baby on her lap, she now holds the man. Before, he was brimming with new life; now he is beyond life’s end. Once he was beautiful; now he is ugly. Once perfect and intact, now distorted and destroyed.
The anonymous sculptor captures these antinomies in visual and tactile form. Mary is straight and rectangular: her knees and hips bend at ninety degrees so that her lower legs and torso form a visual rectangle that establishes the basic order of the artwork. In contrast to her rigid, vertical, rectilinear form, the body of Jesus spreads in a zig-zagging diagonal from upper left to lower right. He bends at the ankles, the knees, and the hips, while his arms extend limply, one dangling straight down and the other resting on his mother’s forearm. His enormous, heavy head falls back, bending his neck at an impossible angle and casting the thorns of his crown in sharp profile against the negative space. In macabre harmony, Mary’s oversized head tilts slightly off center, toward his, as she stares blankly at the space before them and contemplates the horror of the moment.
The weight and angle of his head, his gaping mouth, his dangling arm, and his broken pose emphasize that Jesus is dead. Amplifying this point, the artist presents the wounds in his feet, hands, and side as plump blossoms of gushing blood held constant. Red paint describes the course of blood that once dripped down his arms, and rivulets of red make a maze of his forehead where thorns have harmed him. His near nudity and the gore of his wounds stand in contrast to the splendor of his mother’s blue garment, once partly gilt.
For the Christian viewer of the 14th century, Jesus was not just a man tragically slain. Rather, like an Undercover Boss, the creator and sustainer of the cosmos, God on high, had taken genuine human form to exhibit to humankind by that means an ideal of godly human thought, speech, and behavior. For the late medieval worshiper, Jesus was the Christ, God incarnate, the Word of God become flesh to dwell among us. And the death of Jesus was understood to be a substitutional sacrifice in which the penalty that sinners deserve was assigned to an innocent so that his virtue and merit could justly be ascribed to them despite their sin.
For this reason, the statue’s formal and thematic tensions also embody the theological paradoxes implicit in this soteriological scheme. The son who once lived and has died has thereby attained life for those he saves. The sovereign of all has become vulnerable to the point of death as a demonstration of love and humility worthy of emulation. The moment of horror and lamentation is a moment of honor and celebration. The mourning mother knew the day would come, but knowledge does little to mitigate the direct and forceful imposition of grief. Speechless and silent before grim glory, she perhaps recalls the utterance through which she ushered in this day: be it done to me as you have said. Beauty and ugliness; beauty through ugliness; beautiful ugliness.
As chopped wood goes, this Andachtsbild gives the viewer a lot to ponder.
The pietà is a typically northern European subject. German artists created many such Vesperbild statues during the 14th and 15th centuries. One of the many fascinating complications of the European Renaissance was the adoption of northern themes and technologies in Italy and, eventually, of typically Italian themes, styles, and methods in the north. (Mona Lisa is an example of this cross-fertilization. Perhaps I’ll touch on that in a later post.)
Well, in 1498 the twenty-three year old Michelangelo decided to try his hand at a northern European subject. Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, a delegate to Rome from France, commissioned the work for his own tomb. Spending nearly two years cutting, chiseling, drilling, and polishing a block of Carrara marble, the young artist produced an interpretation that stands in striking contrast to its German antecedent.
Where the anonymous German elicited an emotional response by displaying exaggerated poses, wounds, expressions, and scale, the Florentine invites the viewer to consider the same thematic and theological antinomies without reference to the wretchedness of disproportion, death, and decay.
Mary is still vertical, though her billowing gown makes her more of a pyramid than a rectangle, and the body of Jesus still describes a zig-zagging diagonal across her. But now the proportions are naturalistic rather than exaggerated. The wounds, though visible, are minimized. Supple flesh betrays no sign of death other than inertia; Jesus seems to sleep. Serenity colors the mother’s face and her gesture presents the sacrificed son as a glorious fait accompli. Michelangelo portrays her in her youth, alluding to her own immaculate conception and the later virgin birth of the son now on display. The face of Jesus is likewise young and serene, at peace with this turn in his tale of death and life.
Where the northern artist places as much emphasis as possible on the concrete particulars of torture, suffering, disruption, and death, the southern artist expends unprecedented and lavish effort on refining idealized generalities of anatomical form. Neither artist is a realist; each employs exaggeration for expressive ends. One distorts in order to wield ugliness as a catalyst for empathetic meditation; the other perfects in order to wield beauty for precisely the same purpose. One declares that Jesus is dead; the other declares that Jesus, though dead for a time, is truth and life.
Understanding the expressive potential of wood and stone and some of the formal options available for capturing the emotional and topical contrasts of Christian content helps us to appreciate the astonishing creativity of the German artist Mathis of Aschaffenburg, called Grünewald.
His greatest work, the Isenheim Altarpiece, is a multilayered polyptych in which sculpture, painting, and architectural framing converge to support a complex web of interpretive possibility. This post is not the place to attempt to do it justice. But Grünewald combines a strong rhetoric of ugliness with a strikingly painterly conception of ideal beauty, merging the ideas discussed above. We can discern this dimension of his work by ignoring most of the altarpiece and considering only how he depicts the dead and the resurrected Jesus.
Here the artist’s exploitation of gore is perhaps even more emotionally aggressive than in the Roettgen Vesperbild. The crucified Christ is not only dead but badly damaged. His skin is flayed and torn. His spiked hand sprawls on the arm of the cross like a crushed spider. His knuckled, gnarled feet warp around their iron spike. Weeping wounds gush vibrant blood.
Installed in a monastic hospital where the treatment of lesions and diseases of the skin enjoyed some success, the altarpiece in its closed position, presenting this hideous crucifixion, likely provided some comfort and encouragement to the ill. For here they could see in graphic detail that the savior whom they worshiped was a man of sorrows acquainted with suffering and aware of their plight. He was one whose wounds promised not only eternal salvation for the soul but, perhaps, healing now, or soon, for the body.
The visual style of the crucified body invites the laid-up viewer to identify himself with Jesus in a manner that evokes the Christian precept of Imitatio Christi, the notion that just as God had taken on human flesh and had faced temptation, suffering, and death, so too were believers expected to take in divine light and exercise their faith in Christ to face down the maladies, suffering, malevolence, and death that might stand between them and their realization of life eternal. In this respect, the Isenheim Altarpiece‘s treatment is like that of the little wooden Vesperbild. Emotional engagement stimulated by extreme graphical content promotes contemplation not only of what’s bad, but of how God can turn even the worst of what’s bad into a tool of God’s good purposes.
The Isenheim Altarpiece is a complex affair with sets of panels that open like French doors to either side, exposing further imagery within. When the wings that bear the gruesome crucifixion are opened, the viewer engages an elaborate summary of the grand tale that stands behind it: the annunciation to Mary that precedes it (temporally and conceptually) and the resurrection of Jesus that follows it (temporally and teleologically). And what a shocking contrast the resurrection provides!
The artist represents Jesus aloft above an empty sarcophagus, hovering over debris and sleep-struck Romans overwhelmed by his rising. Airborne Jesus is a being of color and light. His skin, once tainted by the Romans’ barbed lash, now glows perfectly white, cleansed of every other injury and blemish but bearing like badges of honor the five small, red wounds caused by crucifixion and the centurion’s spear. The Christ’s winding cloth whips up into the air, demonstrating the force and vector of his ascent. Inexplicably wrapped in robes of citrus, gold, and yellow, he strikes a gravity-defying pose of strength and purpose that contradicts the claims of his prior weakness. Arms raised to either side, he stares at the viewer from within a startling, sun-like orb that seems to emanate from and engulf him.
Like Michelangelo, Mathis here depends on idealization to magnify the meaning of the piece. Idealized beauty serves as a metaphor for supervening divine perfection and purpose. But there’s a difference, and it’s a function not only of each artist’s vision, but also of his technology.
Michelangelo shapes marble into an eloquent but emphatically material presence. Mathis blends color into a lovely but decidedly ephemeral semi-presence. For the former, the face of the dead Christ is a plastic form where light and shadow play across perfections of proportion and symmetry. For the latter, the face of the resurrected Christ is light itself, finally indistinguishable from the supernatural glow that communicates his glory.
The fundamental discursive challenge of Christian art in the late medieval and early modern eras appears before us: how to depict one who is God and man — without confusion, without change, without division, without separation — in a moving way that articulates and engages, rather than elides, the many layers of sacred meaning that make up the devout viewer’s interpretive frame of reference. These are three solutions. There are many others.