I am reading Ivan Illich's 1987 essay "Hospitality and Pain" (freely available to consult here) which concerns the Western conception of pain and the body.

Illich claims, on page 13, that, after the first millennium, a transvaluation of the Incarnation and the Passion occurred in the West. He suggests that the earliest artistic depiction of the crucifixion emerges in the Rabbula Gospels and draws attention to the way Jesus is depicted as bloodless and with eyes open.

All the Gospel details are depicted: The two thieves, the soldiers throwing dice for the cloak, Longinus with the lance, Mary the mother and John the beloved apostle, the mourning women, the sun and moon hiding their faces. But the figure of Jesus is a symbolic iconogram rather than a picture. Unlike the naked thieves, he is veiled in the long mantle (columbium). The breast wound shows that his body is dead. But his open eyes and the halo around his head reveal the glory of divinity ever present in this body. The work is a Christological statement of the Council of Chalcedon: There are no signs suggesting torture or pain.

In the first millennium, Christians do not focus on the bodily pains suffered by Christ in his passion. Certainly one reason for this is the fact that they had no term fitting the word field of modern English pain. Pain directly denotes an ache in the body, and only obliquely emotion or feelings. The Greek words, lype, algos and nosos directly mean a state of the soul. And the Old Testament, one long story of woes and miseries in which Israel comes to recognize the hand of the living God, simply has no one word that directly refers to the body in pain.

Illich then briefly traces a history of the portrayals of Christ on the cross, describing how, in the 7th and 8th centuries, Jesus is typically veiled in a colobium sindonis, "sometimes reminiscent of the vestments of a priest or king." A century later, Illich claims, Jesus is now undressed down to the loincloth; from the 9th until the 11th centuries, the naked body is found in art, but not commonly.

A break occurs in the 12th century - Illich claims the body is now "even more important than the cross." (page 15)

But then, within Hildegard's generation, the iconogram of the Savior gives way to the realistic representation of a tortured man. As far as excruciating pain can be pictured, it is shown above every altar during the late Middle Ages. Once more the history of the perceived body, and the history of bodily pain, together pass a watershed. Just imagine the crucifixion of the Isenheim altar, painted by Grünewald, which I mentioned earlier. The limbs of Jesus are gangrenous, contorted, discolored - like those of the dying patients, to whom the indescribable light that infuses the painting speaks of themystery of salvation through pain.

In conversation with David Cayley in 1988 (see transcript here) Illich makes reference to these same ideas and summarises his point on how compassion, as a lived experience, becomes possible only at that historical moment when pain has been disembedded from the huge and varied matrix of suffering in which it had been diffused:

In 1100, the crucified Christ, who is one of the most important representations which are left to us of what people thought about the flesh, is still very much the Christ of the first millennium. The first 300 years of Christianity knew absolutely no crucifix. From then on, until the 11th century essentially, he who is on the cross is dressed up as a priest, is a person alive, crowned by the sun. Even if his heart is pierced and the blood flows out, you can see that he’s a fully alive person. It’s an icon, an ideogram. It is not a body which is represented. In the 9th century, slowly the clothes of the priest, the king, the columbium, as they call it, disappears from the body and he is represented in his nakedness, but still as a live body with eyes which look at you, even if his heart is opened. By the end of the 12th century, his head is inclined--he’s a dead man. His body is shown tortured. Physical pain is represented as acutely as you can possibly represent it. No wonder twenty years later, Francis will go and begin to kiss the wounds of lepers. No wonder Francis of Assisi will feel a new feeling for which there was no real word nor importance, even in Christianity, compassion so strong that the suffering with the suffering Christ will express itself written on his hands and feet as stigmata, and the epidemic of stigmata will appear all over central Europe.

Illich is a reputable historian but I have tried looking for depictions of the Crucifixion from before the 12th century and had a very difficult time finding any examples. In one word: is there any significant truth to his thesis that Christ on the cross was depicted initially robed and "alive" and then a sharp break happened around the 12th century, with Jesus now seen as a pained, hurt body?

1 Answer 1


Was there a transformation in the artistic depiction of the Crucifixion after the 12th century?

Yes it seems to be the case.

Joe Townend explains it in parts thus:

Very early crucifixion scenes are rare. The earliest is a piece of Roman graffiti from around 200 AD, now on display at the Palatine Hill Museum in Rome. It is a slur scratched in plaster, depicting Christ as a crucified donkey worshipped by a local fool. Gems engraved by clandestine groups of heretical Christians are the only other known examples from the second and third centuries. Early church leaders knew the horrors of crucifixion and saw it as an unfit subject for art. Instead, they focused their devotion on images of triumph and resurrection.

It was in the Middle Ages that crucifixion scenes became widespread. European pilgrims to the Holy Land brought back small metal flasks used for carrying oil, and mass-produced souvenirs decorated with images of the crucifixion. At the same time, ivory reliefs featuring crucifixion scenes were being produced in Italy. Christianity had become the dominant religion in Europe and the cross was becoming a symbol of devotion.

In France, crucifixion scenes began to appear on Limoges enamel, a distinctive technique developed by goldsmiths in the Benedictine abbeys of central France during the 12th century. The technique was based on the ancient champlevé process of engraving shallow beds in copper. Compositions were mostly used for private prayer, and many were based on engravings from northern Europe.

Among the innovations of the Limoges workshops was the development of painted enamel from around 1470, which allowed for highly detailed figurative scenes. At first, these were high-status objects for high-status individuals – wealthy art collectors or members of the court – and featured mythological or secular imagery. Within a generation, however, many Limoges craftsmen had converted to become Huguenots and focused their attention on the crucifixion once again.

Painted enamel brought devotional scenes to life in vivid colour. Some even saw the process of firing the works as a reflection of the refining fires of purgatory. The compositions are often quite simple, highlighting the subtleties of the figures within them. In some, bystanders reach their hands towards the slumped figure of Christ.

In others, framed by the cruel geometry of the cross, the Virgin Mary and St John can do little but stand and pray. Background detail recedes in deep blues, greens and blacks as the blood-red pours from Christ’s side. Bold but never didactic, the Limoges crucifixions display humanity in its brutality and its tenderness.

The Art of the Crucifixion — A Brief History of the Crucified Christ in Western Art

The Gothic Art period saw a noticed development in artistic Crucifixion scenes.

In the Gothic period more elaborate narrative depictions developed, including many extra figures of Mary Magdalene, disciples, especially The Three Marys behind the Virgin Mary, soldiers xoften including an officer on a horse, and angels in the sky. The moment when Longinus the centurion pierces Christ with his spear (the "Holy Lance") is often shown, and the blood and water spurting from Christ's side is often caught in a chalice held by an angel. In larger images the other two crosses might return, but most often not. In some works donor portraits were included in the scene. Such depictions begin in the late 12th century, and become common where space allows in the 13th century.

Related scenes such as the Deposition of Christ, Entombment of Christ and Nailing of Christ to the Cross developed. In the Late Middle Ages, increasingly intense and realistic representations of suffering were shown, paired with increasingly grotesque and malicious depictions of Pontius Pilate and the allegedly murderous Jews, reflecting the development of highly emotional andachtsbilder subjects and devotional trends such as German mysticism; some, like the Throne of Mercy, Man of Sorrows and Pietà, related to the Crucifixion. The same trend affected the depiction of other figures, notably in the "Swoon of the Virgin", who is very commonly shown fainting in paintings of between 1300 and 1500, though this depiction was attacked by theologians in the 16th century, and became unusual. After typically more tranquil depictions during the Italian Renaissance—though not its Northern equivalent, which produced works such as the Isenheim Altarpiece—there was a return to intense emotionalism in the Baroque, in works such as Peter Paul Rubens's Elevation of the Cross.

The scene always formed part of a cycle of images of the Life of Christ after about 600 (though it is noticeably absent before) and usually in one of the Life of the Virgin; the presence of Saint John made it a common subject for altarpieces in churches dedicated to him. From the late Middle Ages various new contexts for images were devised, from such large scale monuments as the "calvaire" of Brittany and the Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy to the thousands of small wayside shrines found in many parts of Catholic Europe, and the Stations of the Cross in the majority of Catholic churches. - Crucifixion in the arts

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