Blood is either absent or decorously minimized in those images of Jesus’ Passion with which we are best familiar. The death of Jesus is only part of the Christ story; the momentous, history-shattering disclosure comes later. Accordingly, traditional Passion imagery inclines toward a reflective distance from the physical realities of a Roman scourging and crucifixion.
In the earliest crucifixes, the corpus is dressed in an ecclesiastical tunic and its outstretched arms do not bend with the weight of the body. Straight and firm as they are, the outstretched arms suggests either a welcoming embrace or triumphal acclaim—the exuberant gesture of a victory lap. The fresco below is an eighth century addition to the walls S. Maria Antiqua, built in the fifth century and the oldest church within the Roman Forum:
The legacy of Western art is reticent about the actual deed of nailing Jesus to the cross. Few such scenes exist in fresco, on panel, or on canvas. They tend to appear almost exclusively on the conventional pilgrimage series we know today as the Stations of the Cross. These were introducd and popularized—as sculpture—closer to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This fourteenth century panel from Meister Bertram’s Passion altarpiece for the Church of St. John, Hamburg, is one of the few exceptions. Again, there is little blood despite the violent brutality of the tableau. A calculated reserve dictates the scene.
Our customary crucifix presents itself to us as more an emblem of redemption—sign and symbol of our ransom—than an instrument of torture. Bowing to prototypes from medieval and Renaissance painting, it presents a mental image that permits us to look upon the corpus without cringing. Art’s role extends beyond narrative. It exists to penetrate the challenge to contemplation encountered in witnessing a grisly event.
Rubens’ famous crucifixion—to take a single example—presents a muscular Jesus unmarked by the disfiguring whip that left prisoners in a state of half death. Blood runs discreetly from wounds fastidiously marked but deemphasized. Neither in his crucifixion motif nor his deposition does Rubens display the corpus in terms appropriate for a man dehydrated, enfeebled, torn and blood-soaked from the cruelty of the previous day. It is, instead, the figure of an athlete in his prime displaced from a classical gymnasium.
Fra Angelico’s version, universally loved, aestheticizes the flogging with an ethereal symmetry. A transcendent calm infuses the scene. Jesus maintains a graceful contraposto, more like a dancer than a man whose execution is beginning.
It would be a great pleasure to feed representative images onto this post for another ten yards or so. That is my favorite thing to do. Prose is a mere handmaiden to paintings. For me. But perhaps not for you. So let me cut to the chase and admit that all of this has been meant as a segue to Franz Heinrich Louis Corinth (1858-1925), known in art history texts as Lovis Corinth. Student of Bouguereau at the Academie Julian in Paris and, later, director of Berlin’s Sezession, Corinth was the archetypical German Expressionist. In short, a modernist.
He was also a painter compelled by the Passion as a creative motif. Crucifixion scenes occupied his imagination over several years. In 1910, he donated Golgotha for the altar of his hometown church in Tapiau, East Prussia. All that we have is the record of the donation. The painting itself disappeared after the Second World War. Tapiau was left intact, unviolated, during the Second World War. Consequently, it is believed that the painting was looted by the Red Army when it invaded East Prussia at the end of the war. No one quite knows.
I would love to see this vanished work. What is left to us is moving enough: Red Christ painted in 1922, just three years before Corinth died. It is not an easy work to look at. Most people see only the subject of a painting, not the paint or the handling—the art—itself. Red Christ is a beautiful painting of a horrendous subject: the depiction of Jesus pierced by Longinus and encrimsoned with the blood of his ordeal.
The painting is a howl of anguish, perhaps the most gruesome of any Western image of the motif. It is a darker and more agonized evocation of what the Son of Man suffered, for your sake and mine, than anything else in the longue durée of sacred Christian art. It surpasses even Beckmann—and Nolde—who had turned previously to Christ’s Passion to find a paradigm for human suffering. The only valid comparison, historically, is with Matthias Grünewald who drew close to the substance of raw agony.
We are unaccustomed to treatments of the Passion which extend beyond the compositional familiarity of what we revere as the Church’s high patrimony. Our nerves have slackened, gone drowsy, from seeing the Passion through the lens of art tamed by centuries. And by an increasingly self-conscious fondness for what is fast becoming a reigning catchword: beauty.
Note: A careful reader wrote to correct my spelling of Corinth’s birthplace: Tapiau. All fixed above. (It is now Gvardeysk, Russian Federation.)