Contemplating the Crucifixion — the Crucifixi Dolorosi

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up; That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3, 14-15)

Until the XIIIth century the Crucified Christ in the visual arts had almost exclusively been portrayed as the Christus triumphans, Christ the King, the Triumpher over death – a majestic, calm figure, often wearing a kingly crown and showing little or no sign of suffering. The impression that the Christ-figure was serenely ”floating” on the Cross, and not hanging from it, was enhanced by the fact that these were Four-Nail Crucifixes with the feet placed beside each other, often on a suppedaneum or support, and pierced by two nails. By the middle of the XIIIth century the Three-Nail Crucifix had become predominant. This type of Crucifix, that had occasionally been represented in the XIIth century – in reliefs, illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows and small sculptures – began to be used in monumental sculpture after about 1220. There are various theories on the theological background for the Three-Nail Crucifix: that the three nails represented the Holy Trinity; or the liturgy of the hora tertia; or the three cries of the crowd to Pilate: ”Crucify Him!” (Luke 22, 17-25, Mark 15, 11-14) … Certainly the fact that in these Crucifixes the legs of the Christ-figure were bent, with the feet placed one over the other and pierced by only one nail, led to a change in the stance of the figure. This change was in harmony with the new manner of contemplating the Passion that spread throughout Europe during the XIIIth century.

A new spirituality had been prepared by the visions of the Mystics and by the exhortations of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153) calling for a mystical union with Christ on the Cross. With the Crusades the first relics of the Passion arrived in the West: the Sacred Shroud in 1204 (it was believed the Shroud proved that only three nails had been used in the Crucifixion), the Crown of Thorns brought to Venice in 1238 and then by St. Louis to Paris in 1239, fragments of the True Cross… In 1224 St. Francis of Assisi received the stigmata on Monte della Vema – ” a miracle of love that astonished Europe and brought about the birth of completely new forms of sensibility.” (Emile Mâle, L’Art religieux de la fin du Moyen Age en France). These were the decades not only of great suffering and insecurity because of wars, famine and disease, but also of the Church’s struggle against the heresy of the Albigensians who only recognised the divine nature of Christ and claimed His humanity was pure illusion. The preaching of the Franciscans and Dominicans as they travelled from city to city and convent to convent concentrated more and more on the human aspects of the Passion, announcing redemption through the contemplation of and com-passion with Christ’s physical as well as spiritual suffering on the Cross. The Dominicans in particular encouraged the diffusion of the flagellant movement that began in Central Italy in 1260. The mystical texts of the Doctor seraphicus St. Bonaventura (c.1217-1274), regent master of the Franciscan order from 1257-1274, with their ”Trinitarian” theology and special devotion to the Passion, became a fertile source of inspiration. The bare descriptions of the Passion in the Gospels were completed with details taken from the prophecies of the Old Testament – Isaiah 1 and 53, Psalm 22 (21), the Book of Job… The Gothic Three-Nail Crucifix began to portray the Christus patiens, the Suffering Christ, wearing a crown of thorns and hanging from the Cross.

Then at the end of the XIIIth century all these influences united to produce a new type of Crucifix – the Crucifixus dolorosus, the Sorrowful Gothic Crucifix.

The figure of Christ with bent legs and thin, up-stretched arms, hangs heavily from the Cross. The terrible wounds caused by the nails show the sinews of His hands and feet. Blood gushes from the side-wound, spilling over the perizoma. His ribs stand out in tension. His body is covered with small drops of blood and the deep wounds of the flagellation. His head sinks towards His right shoulder, and blood from the Crown of Thorns runs over his gaunt face with the half-open eyes and the deep furrows of suffering.

Here was the Man of Sorrows of Isaiah, the Messiah who had taken the sins of the world upon Himself and given His life to redeem mankind. Small wonder that penitents gathered in ever greater numbers to pray before these Crucifixes, and that in a few short years Crucifixi dolorosi could be found in Churches from the Rhineland in the North to Palermo in the South, from Perpignan in the West to Jihlava in the East.

The difficulties of communication were immense in the Middle Ages, yet in some ways Europe was more united than today, knit together by the constant interchange of monks and Priests, tradesmen and soldiers, artisans and professors, and – especially after the first Holy Year of 1300 –

pilgrims. By the mid-XIVth century there were Crucifixi dolorosi all over Europe, but no longer so powerful and moving as the early ones. By the end of the century the typus had softened and lost the violent signs of suffering, heralding the more serene, classical forms of the Renaissance.

Until recently it was thought that the typus of the Crucifixus dolorosus, although strongly influenced by the late-XIIIth-century works of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, had originated in the Rhineland and that the Crucifix of St. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne was perhaps the prototype that all the others had followed. The recent restoration of several of the most important of these Crucifixes has led to new studies and the belief that the typus developed in Italy and that the oldest examples still extant – such as the Crocifisso Chiaramonte of Palermo Cathedral or the Dévôt-Christ of Perpignan – possibly took after a prototype that no longer exists.

For centuries the Crucifixi dolorosi were the objects of deep veneration. Many were considered miraculous and even carried through the streets in times of calamity. Some had a sepulcrum, or cavity, in the head or back where relics were placed. (Relics were then hidden inside devotional objects; in later centuries they would be displayed behind rock-crystal ”windows”.) Today these Images are still venerated, but perhaps in the early centuries their theological significance was more fully understood by the devout – despite the fact that most could neither read nor write. They knew they had before them a representation of the Man of Sorrows of Isaiah:

…he was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard, Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying, while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God; whereas he was being wounded for our rebellions, crushed because of our guilt; the punishment reconciling us fell on him, and we have been healed by his bruises. (Isaiah 53, 3-5)

The terrible wounds of the hands and feet had been foretold in the Psalms:

…a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing. (Psalm 22 (21), 16-18)

The wounds of the flagellation were, again, in Isaiah:

From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil. (Isaiah, 1, 6)

The small drops of blood all over the body bore witness to the Agony in the Garden:

In his anguish he prayed even more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. (Luke 22, 44)

The green colour of the Cross and of the Crown of Thorns not only referred to the Tree of Life and Christ as the new Adam, but also to His words to the Daughters of Jerusalem during the Way of the Cross:

…Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ”Fall on us!”; to the hills, ”Cover us!”. For if this is what is done to green wood, what will be done when the wood is dry? (Luke 23, 30-31)

Most important of all, the faithful knew they were contemplating an image of Christ true God and true Man – true Man who had suffered the Passion and died, and after His death been pierced in the side by the lance – yet nonetheless, as the half-open eyes filled with commiseration revealed, the living and true God who through His sacrifice had brought Redemption to mankind.

Diana E. Kaley

Select Bibliography

Two fundamental works on the Crucifixus dolorosus are those of Géza de Francovich and Monika von Alemann-Schwartz. Géza de Francovich in his exhaustive study: L’origine e la diffusione del crocifisso gotico doloroso, in Kunstgeschichtliches Jahrbuch der Bibliotheca Hertziana, 2, 1938, pp.143-263, actually gave the name Crucifixus dolorosus to this typus.

Monika von Alemann-Schwartz in Crucifixus dolorosus. Beitrage sur Polychromie und Ikonographie der rheinischen Gabelkruzifixe, Diss. MS, Bonn 1976, greatly extends our knowledge of these Crucifixes while concentrating on their polychromy. (In the Middle Ages the sculpting of wood was considered a mere ”ars mechanica” and the value of a sculpture was given by the polychromy. If a work was the product of two different artists, the painter could be paid up to five times more than the sculptor!)

The restoration of many of the most important Crucifixi dolorosi in recent years, above all that of the Crucifix of St. Maria im Kapitol in Cologne, has led to new studies, such as Pavel Kalina: Giovanni Pisano, the Dominicans, and the Origin of the crucifixi dolorosi, in artibus et historiae, Nr 47 (XXIV), 2003, pp.81.101. These studies culminated in the work of Godehard Hoffmann: Das Gabelkreuz in St. Maria im Kapitol zu Köln und das Phänomen der Crucifixi dolorosi in Europa, Arbeitsheft der rheinischen Denkmalpflege 69, 2006. Hoffmann also gives a complete bibliography up to 2006.

Regarding the other Crucifixes cited:
For the Chiaramonte Crucifix of Palermo Cathedral see:

Diana E. Kaley: Il Crocifisso Chiaramonte della Cattedrale di Palermo, Palermo, 1993.
Diana E. Kaley: The Chiaramonte Crucifix of Palermo Cathedral, in Neue Forschungen sur gefassten Skulptur des Mittelalters. Die gotischen Crucifixi dolorosi, hg. von Ulrike Bergmann (Kölner Beitrage zur Restaurierung und Konservierung von Kunst- und Kulturgut, Bd. 14. Köln 2001, pp.89.103.
Diana E. Kaley: Crocifisso, fine del sec.XIII-inizi del XIV, in XVI Catalogo di Opere d’arte restaurate, Soprintendenza per i Beni Cultural! e Ambientali di Palermo. Palermo 2003, pp. 15-23.

(The author began studying the Crucifixi dolorosi when following the restoration of the Chiaramonte Crucifix undertaken in 1990-1993 by the International Association for Sicilian Monuments, a ngo founded in 1981 by Flora McDougall-Kaley to whose memory this article is dedicated.)

For the Dévôt-Christ of the Cathedral of St. John, Perpignan see:
Isabelle Desperamont/Olivier Poisson: Der Dévôt-Christ von Perpignan. Beobachtungen anlässlich der Restaurierung von 1995, in Neue Forschungen .. (see Kaley 2001), pp. 74-88.

For the Premyslovsky Crucifix of Jihlava/lglau (now in Prague), see:
Ivana Kyzourová: Der restaurierte Kruzifixus von Jihlava (Iglau) und dessen Stellung in der Gruppe der Crucifixi dolorosi, in Neue Forschungen… (see Kaley 2001), pp. 104-113.

… the vision of the Crucified One inspired in Anthony thoughts of gratitude to God and esteem for the dignity of the human person, so that all believers and non-believers might find in the Crucified One and in his image a life-enriching meaning. St Anthony writes: ”Christ who is your life is hanging before you, so that you may look at the Cross as in a mirror. There you will be able to know how mortal were your wounds, that no medicine other than the Blood of the Son of God could heal. If you look closely, you will be able to realize how great your human dignity and your value are…. Nowhere other than looking at himself in the mirror of the Cross can man better understand how much he is worth” (Sermones Dominicales et Festivi III, pp. 213-214).

In meditating on these words we are better able to understand the importance of the image of the Crucified One for our culture, for our humanity that is born from the Christian faith. Precisely by looking at the Crucified One we see, as St Anthony says, how great are the dignity and worth of the human being. At no other point can we understand how much the human person is worth, precisely because God makes us so important, considers us so important that, in his opinion, we are worthy of his suffering; thus all human dignity appears in the mirror of the Crucified One and our gazing upon him is ever a source of acknowledgement of human dignity.

Pope Benedict XVI. General Audience, 10 Feb 2010