Wednesday, December 7, 2016

280. Christ Seen From Behind: Art Around 1890

The crucifixion has been depicted in art so often, that for an artist to come up with a new view verges on the impossible. Usually dramatic effects were sorted by the positioning of the figures around Christ, at the foot of the cross.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lists examples on its website. Italian painters, for example, 'continually renewed' the Passion scenes 

through creative engagement with established conventions. Unlike the stories associated with Christ's birth, the episodes of the Passion are colored by painful emotions, such as guilt, intense pity, and grief, and artists often worked to make the viewer share these feelings. In this, they supported the work of contemporary theologians, who urged the faithful to identify with Christ in his sufferings that they might also hope to share his exaltation.

Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)

In Charles Ricketts's version of Christ on the cross, published as an illustration for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894), the crucified figure is on his own, and, remarkably, hangs as if on the cross, but the cross has been omitted from the image.  

The Metropolitan considers a number of ways to enhance the dramatic quality of the scene:

The climactic moment of the Passion story is the Crucifixion itself. Paintings of the subject were usually intended to foster meditation on Christ’s self-sacrifice, and they thus indicate his suffering by showing him hanging heavily with bowed head and bleeding wounds

Ricketts does suggest the heaviness of Christ's burden, but avoids showing the wounds. The bowed head is shown, but the face is not, and the head of hair is almost entirely covered by the crown of thorns.  

The MET's website argues: 

The figure of Christ is rarely distorted, however, and his state of undress often reveals an idealized body based on classical models. A crowd of other figures typically surrounds the cross, and they are frequently notable for their expressiveness. As depicted on a small altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, Christ is crucified between the two thieves mentioned in some of the Gospels, while the Virgin Mary swoons piteously in the foreground and a host of figures, some in oriental dress and some in Roman armor, take part in the execution or gaze at Christ as though he has somehow stirred them

Fra Angelico, 'The Crucifixion'
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The MET: 

Fra Angelico's small panel of around 1420 includes many of the same elements, but sets them within a more methodically constructed space. This change reflects a shift in style, but it also imbues the scene with enhanced reality, which in turn makes the scene more accessible to pious meditation. In addition, Fra Angelico magnifies the emotional responses of the figures around Christ's solitary cross: the Virgin Mary falls to the ground, Saint John clasps his hands intensely, Mary Magdalene reaches out in a sharply foreshortened view, angels lament against the gold ground of the sky, and the semicircle of onlookers assume carefully varied attitudes of indifference, pity, or wonder.

In my earlier blog on Ricketts's representation of the crucifixion (see also a blogpost from 2013 on the same subject), I included a prepatory drawing by Fra Bartolomeo. I received a reaction on these blogs from Hugh Chiverton in Hong Kong, suggesting that Ricketts's image seems to be unique in its kind. However, he suggested to consider two images by contemporary artists that may be of interest.

James Tissot (1836-1902) made hundreds of gouache illustrations of biblical scenes, all researched in the region of the 'historical' events. One of those paintings has an interesting angle on the crucifixion scene: it is called 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)'. The whole series is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

James Tissot, 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)',
watercolour, c. 1886-1894 (Brooklyn Museum)
The Tissot watercolour shows the cross seen from behind, but unlike Ricketts's image, we do not see the head of Christ or his back, which are hidden behind the cross. We do see part of his sides, and of the loin cloth he is wearing. The focus of the image is on Maria, Mary Magdalene, St John, and others, including Roman soldiers.

The scene is full of drama, and people. Once more, the obvious loneliness of Christ in Ricketts's image forms a stark contrast with this traditional imagery.

Another image that our reader in Hong Kong, Hugh Chiverton, sent to me, was a photograph by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), who, in 1898, did a series of photographs with himself as Jesus, viewed from several angles.

Fred Holland Day, 'The Crucifixion',
photograph (1895)
Some of these photographs show the cross in profile, others are close-up studies of Christ's suffering face, and one pictures a soldier on watch with the cross and Christ at an oblique angle. The series of photographs evoked a motion picture.

While Tissot's images were pious, Day's photographs were seen as 'too realistic', as blasphemous even. Fred Holland Day and Herbert Copeland were the American publishers of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx. Day therefore had seen Ricketts's image.

Among the many depictions of the crucifixion, the one by Ricketts seems to be unique.