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Monday, January 13, 2014

The Medieval Evolution of the Cross

The world that was Medieval Europe was, by and large, governed by the Catholic Church. Everything from a person's daily diet to the treatment of various diseases were influenced by how the church interpreted the will of God in relation to these seemingly mundane daily activities.  In short, the ritual that is life had to be put in harmony with the ritual that was devotion to Jesus the Christ.

And as the Medieval world evolved over the centuries, the understanding and implementation of these various Christian rituals evolved as well. Church and secular leaders, spread throughout the continent, worked tirelessly to enact laws, publish decrees, enforce standards of conduct, and, in short, do all that was deemed necessary to ensure that those under their charge were living a life of pious devotion.

And though these laws did much to help shape the character that was the typical Medieval peasant disciple, it only had a superficial effect.  Medieval peasantry, though certainly influenced by the laws and decrees of their respective lands, were still free to believe whatever they ultimately felt in their heart.  And since things like reading scripture and other holy writ were forbidden (not to mention the fact that most peasants were illiterate), Medieval peasants were forced to find spiritual stimulation in other ways.  Certainly the liturgy of the Mass was quite influential, as were the various feast days, saints, etc.  But since reading was out of the question, this meant that the VISUAL religious experience took precedent in shaping how Medieval peasants understood their faith.

In his article, "From Triumphant to Suffering Jesus: Visual and Literary Depictions of the Crucifixion, 300-1200" historian Michael Stewart explores how the depictions of Christ's crucifixion evolved over a millenia, ultimately culminating with the Renaissance. These crucifixion scenes started with dark, abstract depictions, but eventually evolved to reveal a very human Jesus of deep suffering and agony.  As a result, many of these later Renaissance crucifixion motifs contributed to the persecution of Jews throughout Europe in the twelfth century.

One does not need to be an expert in Medieval history or the history of art to see the obvious changes in crucifixion art that took place over the course of the 900 years that Michael Stewart discusses in his article.  Take, for example, a few basic images:

This image, for example, is from approximately 850 in Spain and reveals what Steward calls "the triumphant Christ."

According to Steward, the earliest depictions of Christ on the cross portrayed a living Jesus.  The early Medieval world actually abhorred depictions of a lifeless, suffering Christ on the cross, which they saw as meaningless.  Instead, early Medieval crucifixion scenes were often like the one above.

In addition, Stewart provides an additional reason for why these early Christians avoided creating death scenes for Christ when he writes: 
The Roman Empire had long admired martial virtues as the primary components of an ideal Roman male's identity, which helps explain the lack of interest in Christ's suffering for a religion that was focusing on converting a population that venerated the deeds of military men.
As a result, it is far more common for us to find the following depictions of Christ from early Medieval Christians:

Mosaic of Christ as Roman Emperor, found in Ravenna, Italy. 

This image of Christ reveals a triumphant, heroic savior of mankind, dressed in traditional Roman clothing, which was precisely the image that early Christians wanted to revere.

For many early Christians, the manner in which Christ died was seen as "unmanly" and certainly not worthy of a great leader (crucifixion was seen as a humiliating way to kill enemies of the State). Is it any surprise that these early Christians would either avoid the crucifixion scene entirely or depict in in a non-degrading manner?

But as Western Europe continued to evolve, the manner in which Christ was depicted evolved as well.  During the 9th and 10th centuries, Western European Christianity became far less individualistic.  As Stewart points out, "One no longer made a deliberate choice to become a Christian." Christianity was, for the most part, now a requirement.  In addition, an increase in the emphasis on Old Testament teachings (Medieval peasants were finding less in common with the now "ancient" Roman world but greater interest in the idea of ancient Israel) brought with it an increased desire to see Christ as the typical "Christian soldier" of the Crusades.  For example:

 This fresco, found in the "Visoci Decani" in modern day Kosovo, came with the accompanying verse from Matt. 10:34 which states, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword."

Again, a triumphant, quasi-militant Christ was the desired imagery for a people who were more than familiar with violence in the name of religion.

With the dawn of the Reformation and Renaissance, however, the Medieval world experienced a shift in how Christ was portrayed.  As Stewart states:
By the 10th century, we begin to see the first examples of a new type of crucifix which emphasized Christ's anguish. The movement gained momentum in the eleventh and twelfth centuries...This period of consolidation and change, created the need for reformers to protect themselves against both clerical and lay opponents.  Jesus presented a focal point around which the reformers could rely, in doing, the reformers emphasized Christ's humanity, which increasingly became an object of devotion and imitation.
The poignant example of Christ being preferred for his humanity and suffering can be found in the poem by Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth-century nun and writer, who wrote:

Now, we call on you, our husband and comforter,
Who redeemed us on the cross.
We are bound to you through your blood,
as the pledge of betrothal.
We have renounced early men,
And chosen you the Son of God.
O most beautiful form.
O sweetest fragrance of desirable delights.
We sigh for you always in our sorrowful banishment!
When may we see you and remain with you?
But we dwell in the world,
And you dwell in our mind.
We embrace you in our heart as if you were here with us.

The imagery created in this poem is not of a warrior Christ or an impersonal emperor of both heaven and earth, but rather of a personal, even intimate Jesus who suffered with his people.  Is it any wonder why the crucifixion art of this time would take on a human, intimate and suffering tone:


The suffering Christ, surrounded by devastated loved ones, reflect the changes that were flooding into Western Europe.  The Renaissance and Reformation brought with them a greater emphasis on individuality, humanity, and promoted the personal, intimate Christ over the warrior Christ.  There can be little doubt that such depictions of the centerpiece of Christianity had a very real and very profound impact on Medieval peasants, who were, for the first time, beginning to see themselves in a very different light.

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