15.01.07, Puglisi and Barcham, eds., New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows

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Donna L. Sadler

The Medieval Review 15.01.07

Puglisi, Catherine R., and William L. Barcham. New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows. Studies in Iconography: Themes and Variations. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2013. Pp. 348. ISBN: 9781580441933 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Donna L. Sadler
Agnes Scott College

Few images are as malleable and long-lived as Christ as the Man of Sorrows. Indeed, as Susan Boynton put it, by the fifteenth century the Man of Sorrows signified a "summation of salvation history and a form of visual shorthand for the Passion narrative" (132). This collection of ten articles on the image of the suffering Christ, which was inspired by a symposium on the subject held at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 2011, presents a provocative overview of this highly charged image of medieval devotion. Though five of the essays are focused on Venice, the images in all of the articles are engaged in an active dialogue across time and space. Two major challenges confront the authors: the derivation of the term imago pietatis and the evolution of the Man of Sorrows upon his arrival in the west c. 1270. The authors examine how the Man of Sorrows appeared and functioned in different guises from narrative to devotional to allegorical to votive offering. Fostering cohesion in these essays is the recurring notion of the viewer's interaction with the devotional image of the suffering Christ, which in turn engendered a pious economic exchange of faith for redemption.

The volume opens with an essay in which John Sawyer explores the textual basis of the "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3) as well as its rich afterlife in the scriptures and exegetical texts--notably St. Jerome, St. Bonaventure, the Wycliffe Bible, the King James Bible and its offspring; it is in the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of Shakespeare, that the image of Christ dramatically shifted from physical suffering to one of mental anguish and sorrow. Tempered by art history's view of the Man of Sorrows as the archetype of physical suffering, the author strives to restore the original meaning to the biblical verse.

Colum Hourihane addresses the hydra-like nature of the Man of Sorrows, Ecce Homo, Christ Mocked, and Christ of Pity. The attempt to define these iconographic variations is valiant, as the other essays in this collection attest to the permeable nature of the boundaries between these visual tropes. The Man of Sorrows is a frontal, iconic image without the accretions that suggest a temporal and spatial aspect of the Passion narrative, such as the tomb, cross, or angels. This static image confronts the viewer with the suffering Christ, which is similar to the Ecce Homo of the later medieval period (fourteenth-fifteenth centuries). Indeed, by the latter period, the dialogue between the Man of Sorrows and the Ecce Homo leads to a certain interchangeability of the two images, which both stress the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Although the author does not invoke it explicitly, the theme of imitatio Christi would have made both these images ideal objects for personal devotion. The image of Christ Mocked, which emerged in the fifteenth century, borrowed elements from both the Ecce Homo and the Man of Sorrows, and was followed by the Christ of Pity in the following century. The proliferation of saints, instruments of the Passion, angels, and other props created crowded scenes that seemed to lose their sacred agency and prompted a return to the singular figure of the Man of Sorrows of the later medieval period.

In tracing the genesis and development of the Man of Sorrows in central and northern Europe, Grazyna Jurkowlaniec considers the Byzantine formula of the Man of Sorrows appropriated in the west, the role Italy plays in the dissemination of this image, and whether the full-length Man of Sorrows that flourished north of the Alps in the fourteenth century is a variation on the Byzantine theme or a new iconographic type. She posits that the Man of Sorrows appeared simultaneously in Italy and central Europe in the third quarter of the thirteenth century, and that the former region adhered to the Byzantine Christ with closed eyes and that central Europe saw the gradual opening of Christ's eyes and a contextual setting for the suffering Savior. She concludes that although the suffering Christ was derived from Byzantine prototypes, the full-length living figure of Christ displaying his wounds amidst the instruments of the Passion was realized north of the Alps before it migrated to Italy.

In one of the most provocative essays in the book, Mitchell Merback explores how the images of the Man of Sorrows behaved upon their interactive use. Whether discussing the Passion liturgy of the Akra Tapeinosis image, the western devotion to the imago pietatis, the Holy Blood cult, the image of loving mercy and charity, the mortuary image, or the image of Christ used in spiritual exercises, each of these examples was implicated in a reciprocal exchange, one that continued for as long as the worshiper engaged the devotional image. Merback argues that therapeutic expectations were the underpinning of this barter between viewer and image. The penitential movements of the Franciscans and Dominicans focused on the pious image of Christ that synthesized the aims of the cult of Holy Blood, the Christ of Utmost Humiliation, and the Man of Sorrows to forge a devotional object. To the latter the Carthusians added potent Eucharistic associations c. 1400 that in turn engendered pilgrimages and ensuing indulgences. The living blood offered perpetual therapy, which was the redemption of humankind. The blood of the suffering Christ conjured his mercy; indeed, the moral imperative was made very clear in the placement of a statue of the Man of Sorrows above the alms box. This suffering Christ communicated with the symbolic celebration of Christ's sacrifice on the altar so that "cold metal coins--are enlivened by Christ's presence in the Eucharist, they become salvific surrogates in the hands of the needy" (90). In his analysis of Christ in Repose, Merback supplants the term Andachtsbild with Meditationsbild, for one not only identifies with the image, but the latter becomes an instrument in the repair of one's soul.

Susan Boynton's essay confirms the polyvalence of the Man of Sorrows as a sign in the later Middle Ages. The author views the images as accompaniment to the texts and charts the tension between the two unintended allies. In the reception and performance of prayer texts, new meanings arose for the Man of Sorrows just as his presence promised new significance for the texts inhabited by the image. Though the image waned as the text grew more prominent, Boynton notes the decisive role images played in determining the meaning of those texts. In discussing the prayers of St. Gregory associated with the dead Christ and set to music by Josquin des Pres in the late fifteenth century, Boynton suggests that these prayers were probably sung in front of images of the main episodes of the Passion; the power of these prayers would have certainly been enhanced by this visual dirge.

Maria Constantoudaki-Kitromilides, who traces the passage of the Man of Sorrows from its Middle Byzantine migration to Venetian Crete and Cyprus, finds the latter fertile ground for iconographic variations on the theme that ultimately yielded an image for public veneration and private devotion, one that emphasized the suffering body of Christ as well as the Eucharist. Once again this timeless figure became an active agent in the worshiper's participation in the Passion; the Eucharistic function of the Man of Sorrows particularly resonated when the image was found in the apse or prosthesis of a Byzantine church where the holy sacraments were prepared. The author concludes that the Man of Sorrows assumed various guises in order to fulfill different functions and spiritual needs in varied contexts, both secular and ecclesiastical: Christ of the Utmost Humiliation clearly inspired the inception of the Man of Sorrows in the West, where it continued to undergo various permutations. The latter reveal the vitality of the Man of Sorrows in the post-Byzantine period, ranging from the lone figure of Christ with hands either crossed over his abdomen or outstretched to the corners of the sarcophagus, or depicted with the instruments of the Passion--models from the fifteenth century that persist until the seventeenth century because of the role of Crete in disseminating these images throughout the west.

William Barcham illuminates the career of Michele Giambono in his analysis of six versions of this Venetian painter's Man of Sorrows. Poised between the late Gothic and Renaissance periods, did Giambono's treatment of this subject influence the works of other artists? The different interpretations of the Man of Sorrows suggest that these works were all commissioned by theologically savvy patrons, for Christ appears hauntingly upon Veronica's veil (Vera Icona) (fig. 7) in one instance and juxtaposed to Mary as the co-redemptrix in man's salvation in another (fig. 9). These images evoke pity in the viewer who, again, enters into a private interchange with the Veronica as if the encounter occurred on the road to Calvary. These paintings have a "you are there" quality that makes a compassionate response inescapable. Barcham provides a clear evolution of the Man of Sorrows from his Byzantine incarnation between c. 1150/1200 and 1500 when ecclesiastical vestments bore the imprint of the suffering Christ, revealing the importance of silk weaving in the Veneto and Tuscany. Though Giovanni Bellini dominated the Venetian art scene, Giambono's images did bear fruit in the work of Carlo Crivelli and Bartolomeo Vivarini.

The mariegole of the statute books of Venetian confraternities illuminated between c. 1320 and c. 1550 provide another lens through which to trace the iconographic theme of the Man of Sorrows. Lyle Humphrey traces the Passion theme from the final moments of Christ's flagellation to his Crucifixion to the Dead Christ before the Resurrection, deciphering the symbolic language and its meaning for the patrons of these works. Mariegole were also part of late medieval piety in that the image of the suffering Christ was a model for worshipers contemplating the Passion. Many of the confraternities discussed in this essay were dedicated to the Holy Sacrament and one of the duties of that group was to deliver communion to its ailing members. One of the images forged for the mariegole was that of Christ rising out of a chalice instead of the tomb (Cristo in cain), making explicit the link between the Man of Sorrows and the Eucharist (fig. 22). There was surely no surer sign of Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist. The author concludes that the presence of this iconic image of the Passion in Venetian illuminated mariegole from the early fourteenth through the mid-sixteenth centuries was a testament to the communal belief in its salvific powers.

Catherine Puglisi considers the resurrection of the image of the Man of Sorrows by Veronese after it had virtually disappeared by 1500. Veronese updated the image to conform to the dictates of the Council of Trent, yet he responded to the Venetians desire for a direct religious experience. Emphasizing Christ's death and humanity, the suffering Savior is found in heaven, freed from the spatial and temporal constraints of earlier depictions. When flanked by angels, the dead Christ resonates with the Mass in which the celebrant asks God to accept the offering from the hand of his angel. In another example, Veronese visualizes the existence of saintly intercession by the presence of saints in the terrestrial realm of the St. James Altarpiece (fig. 3). In a beautiful and innovative work, Veronese conflates the Pietà with the Man of Sorrows, as Mary's mantle comingles with the shroud that drapes over the ledge of the sarcophagus, and an angel proffers Christ's left hand revealing his wound (fig. 12). Originally displayed above an altar, the luminous shroud would have merged with the altar cloth sealing the bond between Christ's sacrifice for humankind above and the Eucharistic liturgy performed below. In two paintings in Berlin (figs. 15-16), Veronese invites the worshiper to join Christ in the tomb: once again, the Man of Sorrows is in dialogue with the viewer. Veronese's Christ, as the author points out, is past suffering, and quietly accepts his fate with compassion; this artist's revitalization of this image inspires the next century to embrace the Man of Sorrows on its own terms.

The final essay in the collection concerns the images of Christ in Venetian piety in light of the Council of Trent. Stefania Mason considers the paradigm shift engendered by the Eucharist's assumption of center stage in religious devotions. The worshiper was encouraged to be fully engaged with the Sacrament; the visual analogue was the presence of the Dead Christ with one angel, accentuating the loneliness of the Savior's final hours. Following the Council of Trent an image of the Risen Christ was added to this iconographic program. There was an ongoing interchange between personal devotions and public worship where private paintings assumed positions in communal spaces before the pronouncements at Trent. But the two spheres were more sharply divided after Trent. The former predilection for narrative scenes from the Passion story was supplanted by more symbolic scenes such as two angels flanking an image of Christ in the chalice (fig. 17). A taste for close-up compositions that encouraged the worshiper's personal engagement with the drama of Christ's death corresponds to the idea so many of the authors have stressed in this book: in order to partake of Christ's salvific grace, one must identify with his suffering and experience the utmost humiliation and agony. The final image in this essay is a carved angel holding a cloth that frames the Eucharistic elements; it is found on the exterior of the façade of the Scuola dei Fabbri at San Moisè in Venice (fig. 22). This image provides a fitting last glance at an iconographic motif that began with the Byzantine Akra Tapeinosis and culminated with this symbolic cypher.

New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows throws into relief the iconographic challenges facing the iconographer of this theme, for the Suffering Christ embraces a number of narrative and iconic images. The real presence of the worshiper is further delineated in the reception of the Man of Sorrows: the image was meant to invoke pity and true suffering in the viewer so that he or she would identify with the magnitude of Christ's sacrifice for humankind and experience salvation at the end of time. It was surprising that so little was said about the imitatio Christi and the Meditationes Vitae Christi and similar texts that helped forged this late medieval type of devotion. Nonetheless, New Perspectives on the Man of Sorrows is a welcome addition to the literature of this period; it is a beautiful book with solid scholarship on a theme that is often elusive but always a moving reminder of the preeminence of the Passion in medieval and early modern art history and religion.

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Author Biography

Donna L. Sadler

Agnes Scott College