Painted Cross. Wikimedia Commons

The Mystery Within the Painted Cross

Over the course of centuries: from Christ alive and triumphant to Christ dead and patiens. A voyage of discovery of the iconographical subject that combines and embraces both the human and divine natures of the Son of God.
Marco Bona Castellotti

Why this topic of the painted Cross and its mystery? If someone asked me what form of artistic expression most intensely reflects the sense of the Mystery of God, I would answer: an Italian painted cross of the twelfth century. But mystery underlies the theme of the painted Cross, and it is a mystery with a cultural root: what are the reasons for the iconography (from the East and the West) of Christ alive and triumphant on the Cross giving way to that of Christ dead and suffering? The face of Christ on Cross no. 432 in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, by an anonymous artist and dated around the middle of the 12th century, to my mind represents a supreme moment in the history of art, in its apparent lack of any expression of pain and its manifest expression of sadness and distance. In the Crucifixion contained in a codex in the Laurentian Library in Florence, called the Ràbula Codex after the name of the painter of the miniatures (probably Syrian in origin), we have a portrayal of the subject that has already moved a great deal forward in terms of the density of its constituent elements: Christ, the two thieves, the Virgin and St. John on the left, Stephanatus and Longinus (legend says that Longinus collected the blood gushing from Christ’s side in a chalice and took it to Mantua; the chalice of the blood of Christ is, according to tradition, still in Mantua, where it is venerated), the three soldiers gambling at the foot of the Cross, and the group of pious women on the far right. The codex is probably Syrian in origin; the representation of Christ and all the figures in the scene is highly realistic. For example, Christ is wearing a long tunic called a colobion, of Syrian origin, and has a beard, in contrast to the Hellenistic tradition of a beardless Christ. Hellenistic culture tended to beautify things, and was thus more likely to represent a smooth, beardless face rather than this realistic one, just as all Eastern Christianity is realistic. The sun and moon often appear in depictions of the Crucifixion, alluding precisely to the Gospel of Luke, which says, “obscuratus est sol,” the sun was darkened, at the moment of Christ’s death. However, the sun and moon could also be an echo of more ancient, pagan iconographies from the area of Syria which pertain to the representation of certain deities like Serapis, or Jupiter Heliopolitanus, or Mithra, all deities linked with the cult of the sun, from which Christianity borrowed numerous elements, such as the concept of Christ as Sol invictus.

Aniconic art
In the first three centuries, Christian art is completely aniconic, based only on symbols, and the cross, because of its shape, functions as a symbol. With the arrival of Constantine on the imperial throne, the cross became supreme, and Constantine adopted for his battle standard the symbol of the Cross itself. In the monogram of Christ, the cross begins to appear with the Alpha and Omega, and the monogram endures as a symbol long after the Constantinian era. Around 340, the legend appears of the finding of the True Cross by Constantine’s mother, St. Helen. With this, the triumph of the cross moves forward, but it was not an iconographical progress; a long time would pass before the cross, and especially the crucifixion with the body of Christ, would appear in iconography, because crucifixion is a pagan form of torture. In 340 the torture of the cross was abolished. The cross, as we can see in the great mosaic in the apse of the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna, dating to the 6th century, still has a symbolic appearance. The only element that recalls Christ is the medallion in its center, but all the rest becomes pure geometry. What are the reasons for this? Here the mystery surrounding the iconography of the cross begins to thicken, and we must broaden our investigation wherever possible to take in the field of the history of the Church and of Christianity, and the heresies connected with it. One of the most persistent heresies, which dates to the early decades of the fourth century, is that of Eutyches, who denied Christ’s human nature, asserting only His divine one. In this sense, everything that could be a corporeal representation of God was negated. The question was resolved rather late, in 692, when a Council, called “in Trullo” (meaning, “under the dome”), was convened in Constantinople. The 11th paragraph of the Council’s report clearly expressed the problem: “It is the painter who must take us by the hand and lead us to the memory of the living Jesus in flesh and blood, who dies for our salvation and wins with His passion the redemption of the world.” Thus, finally, complete space could be left to the depiction also of Christ on the cross, but on what condition? On the condition that His triumphant survival after death be maintained. Here again the problem, the mystery, becomes denser, and many have tried to understand why Christ is triumphant, since the Scriptures alone are not sufficient to justify Christ living on the cross after death.

In the extraordinary fresco in Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, of the 8th century, Christ is alive, expressionless, His face unmarked by any trace of pain, His eyes open, rapt and triumphant in His solemn calm beyond death. It is probable that the explanation for Christ depicted after death can be found in the answer to Eutyches’s theory which was issued during the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, in which it was affirmed that both the human and divine natures were present in the one Person of Christ. The unity of these two natures had to overcome the problem of Christ’s pain in dying and also deal successfully, in an omnicomprehensive and synthetic form, with the concept of the Passion.

The Iconoclastic Movement
The iconography of Christ alive and triumphant on the Cross lasted in the East until the 11th century, and in the West until the first two decades of the 12th century. The fresco in Santa Maria Antiqua was probably painted by an anonymous master from Constantinople, and is usually dated to the late 8th century; it was likely that Eastern artists converged on Rome in that particular historical moment for a very simple, historically identifiable reason, which was the great Iconoclastic Movement that raged between roughly 730 and 840 and gave rise to a veritable war of religion against anything that could be construed as an image of the Redeemer. What was the impetus for this “image-smashing” movement, which received fundamental support from Basil and the intellectual circles at court? It was the fact that the realism of a certain kind of popular art was considered sinful. The Iconoclastic Movement was born out of a moral judgment that immediately became a cultural judgment of unprecedented import: it was a revolution that led even to massacres. At the origin of the Iconoclastic Movement was an Islamic influence, because Islamic art is aniconic; pure decoration. But it was precisely the base of popular elements and the world of monasticism, once again in the Christian East, that preserved and safeguarded a realistic sacred iconography, because the common people wanted in front of them an image, not an idea.

While in the West the representation of Christ alive on the Cross endures until the 13th century, what happened in the East two centuries earlier is still wrapped in mystery. For what reason in the first two decades of the 11th century, around 1020, did a codex appear, illuminated in the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, with one of its miniatures showing Christ dead on the Cross? For what reason does the astonishing mosaic at Dafnì show Christ with His head bent down, His body arched, His figure having lost the hieratic, static solemnity of representations up until that moment? His head rests on His shoulder, His eyes are almost completely closed, and Christ is dead, even though it is not a totally corporeal death and resembles much more a kind of sleep. It is an almost disincarnate death, more an abandonment of earthly life than real death; His eyes are closed, and something new has happened in the meantime. Among the myriad hypotheses that have been put forward in modern and contemporary studies, one can be considered the most plausible. In the monastery of Stoudios, toward the end of the 10th century, a monk and philosopher, Nichetas Sthetatos, had made an attempt to resolve the matter, which had tremendous figurative, artistic, and expressive implications. The problem was how to justify the notion that God could die on the Cross, a death that was different, in bodily terms, from the death of the two thieves, and yet maintain His divinity even after death. He arrived at this theological solution: He did die on the Cross, His body died, but the Holy Spirit remained in Him, to safeguard Him, as it were, so that even dead He was living in the Spirit. This removed all obstacles to the representation of the dead Christ, and the faithful could continue to be confident in the life of God. But in order for the faithful to be even more certain that in a dead body, in the dead body of Christ, life still went on, for the first time the flow of blood from His side was depicted.

Alive and triumphant
The large ivory Crucifix originally in Leon Cathedral and now in the archeological museum in Madrid, the Cross of Ferdinand I of Castille, of 1160, demonstrates that the iconographical tradition of Christ alive on the cross not only endured, but spread also through the Latin world, in Spain and especially in Italy. Christ has a ghostly air, due to the fact that His large staring eyes–because He is alive and triumphant–are made of blue porcelain; thus, everything is aimed at focusing on the theme of suspension, albeit extraordinarily concrete in its impact.

The phenomenon of the flourishing of painted crosses is an Italian one, but it is not known if the earliest painted cross was Italian. The strange and curious fact is that, at any rate, after Dafnì, after the idea expressed in the monastery of Stoudious, after Nichetas Sthetatos, after Christ dies or in any case abandons Himself to something very similar to death in the East, in the West–which should be culturally up-to-date–Christ continues to be triumphant until the beginning of the 13th century.

In another extraordinary Italian painted cross, the Cross of Rosano now in the Uffizi, the top of the cross has been cut off, but otherwise it is intact. Here we have the first appearance of the panels surrounding the body of Christ which usually illustrate all the moments of His Passion, but Christ is alive.

The detail of the face is particularly unsettling. To be sure, the Byzantine influence is still strong, but this Byzantine influence has had to adapt and meld with a concreteness of the image which is completely Italian. While it is true that Christ is shown almost impassible, as though not affected by pain, not reflecting pain in His expression, it is also evident that in the fixed stare of His eyes there is a sense of distance, of sadness and gloom that seems to be in need of expanding out and finding a new form to express itself and become ever more real, of leaving behind its totem-like air, which is so intangible as to be insufficient to satisfy the pietas of those who wish instead to draw ever closer to the figure of Christ.

The Cross of Pisa maintains the structure of the panels along Christ’s sides, which are in a sense the sign of an ancient tradition. Moreover, there is an almost excessive linearism: Christ is no longer seen with His eyes wide-open, He is no longer alive, but dead. Looking more closely, however, this death still shows the characteristics of the dead Christ of Dafnì. The hair divided into three locks, the excessive linearism outlining the curve of the nose and eyelids, but above all the bodiless abandon, floating, dream-like, as it were, all lead to the supposition that the artist was Eastern. It is certainly the first cross in the area of Italy in which Christ is dead. Can we think, therefore, that the author may have come into contact with that absolutely revolutionary event in European culture which provides the certain reason for the colossal sea change, and above all for the boundless change which was reflected in the figurative arts by the representation of the dead Christ on the Cross? This event is none other than the arrival on the scene of St. Francis and his thought and preaching.

The arrival of St. Francis
The marvelous Cross by Giunta Pisano, dated just after 1220, is now in the Church of San Domenico in Bologna. What happened? How distant is this face of Christ–by now completely abandoned to suffering, absolutely dead, with no shadow of hesitation, and so capable of engaging the spectator, the faithful, that it stays with him–from the Cross of Dafnì. What has happened is a real breakthrough. This is because in the thought and preaching of St. Francis, identification with the dead Christ has become one of the pivots of all his spirituality, his piety, and from this welled forth everything that followed on the figurative plane. There is nothing more efficacious, more eloquent and useful for explaining what has taken place than the words of Jacopone da Todi, who in a Franciscan climate at a certain point writes, “Myself I want to deny and the Cross I want to bear.” As though in a crescendo of earthly pain, Giunta painted (around that same time) the Cross for Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi. He abandons the upward linearism; everything has become more concrete. Progress is continuing toward the final point of arrival, which would be reached only with Giotto: to take to the far reaches of its truth the humanization of the sacred and thus also of the figure of Christ.

The painted Cross of Coppo di Marcovaldo, in the Museo Civico in San Gimignano, is dated 1274. Some earlier elements still persist, such as the illustration of episodes in the life of Christ on the side panels, and too the lighter weight of the figure of the dead Christ which in some ways recalls the fact, the possibility of leaving Him as though partially, impalpably alive. Any innovations that appear in the work of a painter like Coppo di Marcovaldo can be attributed to an artist who, although younger than he, was his immediate predecessor, and who had gone even further than Giunta: Cimabue. So there is something new; above all there is a lightening of certain parts, which however should not be interpreted in a retroactive sense, like a desire to go back to the past in the impalpability of the figure, but instead should be understood as a laborious effort to achieve that humanization of the sacred by which Christ could be ever more real and the Mystery ever more incarnate. To reach this point, another revolution was needed, similar to that of St. Francis even if projected onto another plane. Precisely as a function of the declared humanity of Christ, in His death (but this time it is fully and completely a physical, human death, and as such can even experience a shudder of life, as in the Crucifix in the Tempio Malatestiano, in which Christ is dead but is human and divine) the headlong course toward modernity is now underway and the unity in Him of divine and human is definitively decreed.