When we take the time to stop, look, explore, and reflect on works of Christian devotional art it is possible to appreciate that they serve a range of purposes. For many they are a means to tell and reinforce elements of the Christian story. Central figures could be both a focus of attention and of prayer, this is especially true of depictions of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Artistic compositions conveyed a message, sometimes a clear one, occasionally an oblique one. Depictions of the Passion of Christ, more especially the Crucifixion itself are as means to serve as a reminder of Jesus’s suffering for Mankind. Down the ages styles and degrees of focus have varied considerably, some works wish to convey the busy nature of the scene, often with a reasonable degree of poetic licence, whilst others home in on Christ and his agonies, and possibly the reaction of those close to him such as his blessed mother and Mary Magdalene. Few artists had any idea of what the environs of First century Jerusalem looked like, let alone the type of people that might have been present in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover and who might have made up the crowd of those who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus and two criminals. Accuracy in respect of landscape, architecture and clothing was simply not an issue, many artists simply opted to set the likes of soldiers in the attire that they, their patrons and other would have been familiar with. Art afterall is largely representational and so we should not trouble ourselves too much about deviation from period detail.
Many works of art have been commissioned at the behest of powerful patrons, whether these were popes, monarchs, clerics, religious communities, or wealthy citizens. Religious devotion was often a secondary motive to that of status and the desire to display one’s wealth and position. With patronage comes preference and this was often at the expense of accuracy. Certain colours were deemed preferable because they were rare and costly, and gold was used with apparent abandon more out of pride than religious piety. Does this diminish the artistic merit of what was created? Most definitely not, for we know that the journey of faith is rarely free from elements of human frailty and vanity. So whilst churches, chapels and private residences were adorned with religious works of art for different reasons it does not detract from their merit, or the fact that they can and do serve a means by which people continue to engage, reflect and pray. Art has long been a conduit for devotion, with some work being a focus of devotion, something that has complicated the relationship down the ages, with some fearing that certain artistic creations caused excessive religious fervour that amounted to icon worship and blasphemy.
The challenge facing anyone viewing any work of art, devotional or otherwise, is to look as well as see. All too often we understand the general meaning of what is being portrayed, whilst missing some of the clues that are there, if only we gave the work our full attention. Let us take for an example the central panel from a triptych by the Sienese artist Andrea di Vanni dating from the 1380s. The subject of the triptych is The Passion of Christ and unsurprisingly the middle panel takes as its focus the Crucifixion. There is a remarkable symmetry about this work, which as well as Jesus nailed to the cross there are fifteen people to his right and twelve to his left. Whilst the work is Christ-centric this panel has a series of individual stories that are worthy of our attention. Either side of Jesus are the two thieves, Dismas (The Penitent Thief) and his co-criminal Gestas (The Impenitent Thief). Dismas has been placed on Jesus’s right and we can clearly see two winged cherubs or angels receiving his soul in the fom of a baby. The Penitent Thief is dead at this point, and there is evidence that his legs have been broken, this was known as crurifragium and was carried out to finish off those who had not already died. We can see Gestas in the process of dying in considerable pain and his black soul is about to be snatched by a foul winged fiend. Beneath Gestas to his left is a Roman soldier holding a pennant featuring the letters SPQR – an abbreviation of Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Roman Senate and People). Soldiers are shown drawing lots for Jesus’s robe. Mary Magdalene is portrayed sub cruce in her trademark scarlet – this colour being emblematic of the sins of her past life. A disciple believed to be John the Apostle is also portrayed, he is in pink and is clasping his hands as if in prayer. Jesus’s mother is on her Son’s right in Marian blue and is swooning in a state of distress and being comforted by other womenfolk.To Jesus’s right is a Roman soldier on a horse with his hands clasped and looking directly at Jesus, this appears to capture the moment described in Mark Chapter 15 Verse 39: “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’ “. Our primary focus is the crucified figure of Christ, whilst the thieves have been tied to their crosses, he has been nailed. Vanni has portrayed Jesus with three nails, one in each hand, and the feet crossed over and nailed. It is generally believed that the feet would have been nailed individually. A suppedaneum (wooden foot support) is just visible. The crosses used are Tau or T-shaped, with a titulus nailed above Jesus’s head, it reads: INRI – the Latin inscription IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum), which in English translates as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”. Jesus has his head tilting towards the right and his right side pierced and above him angels or cherubs hover. Note the fact that certain characters have haloes and the soldiers are wearing armour contemporary with the Fourteenth century. Gold has been liberally deployed as a means of emphasising the sanctity and importance of this devotional work.
Some may dismiss such works of art as ostentatious or even a distraction from the true meaning of the Christian faith, whilst we should not dismiss such criticism out of hand, it is worthwhile emphasising the point that art can be a way by which people can connect with the divine and by so doing develop a deeper faith.
Image c/o Wikimedia Commons – For more about di Vanni’s triptych visit: https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.167923.html