Friday, June 20, 2008

Grunewald's Crucifixion

The German painter Matthias Grunewald's take on the crucifixion scene is interesting, given the time period in which he was painting (early 1500's or so). Here is the painting (which is, in fact part of a much larger work):

Now what, you may ask, is so different about this work when compared with others. First off, Grunwald does not idealize Christ: he's skinny, though muscular, he doesn't have that heavenly glow that pervades so many religious depictions, in short, he looks like someone who was arrested and abused by the Romans, dragged a cross for a couple of miles, then was nailed to it. It is one of the most human depictions of Christ I have ever seen. Here's a closeup of his face:

The color here is actually more accurate than the fuller sized reproduction above. His lips are blue (presumably from lack of oxygen), his face has a greenish tinge to it, and the blood is visible on his face. This, I believe, is a more powerful representation of Christ than some "idealized" counterparts. It explicitly draws attention to the suffering of Christ and reminds the viewer of what he went through for our sake. Idealizing the figure of Christ, which is a more 'orthodox' route to take, no doubt emphasizes the divine aspect of him. However, while this is important, it downplays what truly makes him a great figure that all people--religious or otherwise--can draw inspiration from, namely taking pain like a man (and preaching a moral code that can be appreciated by everyone who is sane). Here's a close up of Christ's body:

Note how it's not idealized in the least. One can see thorns in his chest and sides, blood from the deep gash in his right side, and dirt. In its horror, though, lies its power.

I, for one, am not religious. However, I can appreciate the power of this work and of the figure it represents precisely because of its more "human" elements. While he was divine, Christ was also a human being; he probably ate, slept, worked, sweated, and took shats like the rest of us. (I'm speaking not of the "historical" Jesus, who, since I'm not religious I don't believe could be divine, but of Jesus as presented in the Gospels) And, because of this, his suffering is made that much more powerful: if Christ were purely divine his suffering and subsequent crucifixion would have less of an impact because he would be wholly Other. On the other hand, if he were like us (maybe he got the runs once in a while from eating too many figs), at least in some respects, we can relate to him, to his cause, and to his pain.

Some may accuse me of trivializing this eminent and divine figure, particularly by saying he perhaps got the runs on occasion. I would disagree, for the reasons stated above; it is precisely this human element which makes Christ all that more powerful. He should not be revered because he's the son of God. He should be revered because he suffered like us and died like us in the name of goodness for mankind. Grunwald's work brings this element to the fore, which is why it is probably my favorite crucifixion scene ever painted.

For a comparison, here's a work by Signorelli, which was painted c. 1500:

The differences are clear. In this fresco, Christ is somewhat more divine and idealized: there are no thorns sticking out of his sides and no dirt on his body. His only article of clothing looks slightly more "regal" than in Grunewald's work and the general atmosphere of the Italian representation of the crucifixion is less brooding and dark on account of the brighter and more colorful pallate. In Signorelli's work, Christ is looking pretty good for having gone through all that he has. And, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. In my view, however, it lacks the power and force of Grunewald's: it portrays Christ the Divine and not Christ the sufferer.

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