This post was inspired by (a) Easter (b) watching a DVD of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ ( all 2 ½ hours of it!) and (c) a meditation on what I call the "dynamics of the cross" from the Renaissance to modern art.
Not really a believer, I was nonetheless curious to see how Gibson's controversial film would handle the iconography of various scenes of Christ's final hours like the Agony in the Garden and the Crucifixion. It was the latter that fascinated me: has there ever been such a bloody breakdown of the execution of Christ; has it ever been rationalized into such a formula of suffering and brutality; has there ever been such a, literally, blow by blow account? I was particularly intrigued by how Gibson turned the Crucifixion into a mechanical process in which every detail was deemed greatly significant. Effort and exertion. Every tightening of the rope against the skin, every driving home of nail into flesh, every gasp of pain escaping the wracked body of the saviour. Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the mechanics of suffering was the flipping of Jesus's cross through space, so that it lay with the messiah's face pointing towards the ground.
This inversion got me thinking about the dynamics of the cross in space, an idea that has seldom been considered in art history, accounts mainly concentrating on the iconography of the event. An interest in the spatial aspects of the crucifixion may be the result of institutionalizing perspective in the fifteenth-century, although in most depicted crucifixions of that time, the spatio-temporal fits a losing battle with static flat pattern. Thus in Andrea del Castagno's Crucifixion of 1450, we get the two thieves in three quarter view, but not really a sense of space within the composition, more variations in position.
Perspective is more exploited in later Renaissance art: Tintoretto's version has the cross of the bad thief being levered up, a dramatic foreshortening effect that immediately gives us a sense of the space around that particular cross although Christ's cross must remain static so that it faces the viewer.
Moving into the seventeenth-century, we encounter an excellent example of foreshortening the cross, in this case Christ's own. Annibale Carracci's Quo Vadis Domine (1600) shows Christ carrying a very foreshortened cross, an effect clearly developed from their experiments with perspective in the Carracci Academy in Bologna, where they would have been encouraged to study the cross from every angle, much like Gibson who rotates the cross on Golgotha so that the moviegoer becomes aware of the cross moving through space.
Lest I give the impression that Gibson's dynamics of the cross can be traced back to an academic tradition in which the cross is observed from multiple viewpoints, I should also say that Gibson in his stressing of the physical nature of crucifixion owes something to an anti-academic, realist tendency best represented by Caravaggio. His Crucifixion of St Peter shows the labour of crucifying a victim, and again we see the tipping up of the cross, although the black box like space obliterates perspective completely. The cross is swallowed up in the maw of a frozen moment of suffering unlike the Carracci whose wide open landscapes suggest the unfolding of natural processes over time. So perhaps Caravaggio is the more obvious model for Gibson, especially because his dynamics of the passion are mediated through a similar aesthetic in which the action is petrified in a sequence of moments: Christ's journey to Calvary is a series of stops and starts, the cumulative effect being to indicate inertia rather than motion.
It's probably the case that in the early modern period we encounter what marks the beginning of the modern and humanistic treatment of crucifixions, where the scientific and spiritual come together in a strange constellation of ideas. Consider a drawing by the deeply devout St John of the Cross, (1542-1591). Here the cross is not foreshortened, but shown in oblique view from above, begging the question why did this mystic chose such a precipitous view.
Gibson didn't exploit this viewpoint in his movie, but in a famous earlier film 1961, King of Kings, Nicholas Ray did: he gives us a dizzying few seconds directly at the top of the cross- we look down from the vantage point of God towards the ground before the camera restores order by pointing back towards the sky. If you hang in with this excerpt, you'll see it.
In John of the Cross's drawing we are close to that filmic viewpoint but we're seeing Jesus from an elliptical angle, a vertiginous position that inspired the surrealist genius Salvador Dali who also did a drawing of Christ from above, which he later turned into a painting, Crucifixion of St John of the Cross (1951). For Dali, the image of Christ on the cross offered a way of combing academic precepts with strictly scientific principles: he wanted to paint a saviour in cubist form, exchange metaphysics for physics. Not content with that, Dali wanted to paint an "exploding Christ"-and you thought a chocolate Christ was controversial! - as well as transcending the limitations of the form. Dali was also influenced by the treatise of a seventeenth-century architect, Juan de Herrera, on cubic form., whose ideas also underpin Dali's investigations into Velasquez Las Meninas.
Dali's earlier crucifixion is impressive because most views of the event can be accommodated: we can both look down on Christ or imagine ourselves standing on the shore of Port Lligat like the man by the boat looking up. We can have both an earthbound and celestial view. But his Hyper Cubic Crucifixion of a few years later is distinctively unsettling. Looking at it, I'm reminded of T.S. Eliot's line "Like a patient etherized upon a table"- this is Christ as an object ripe for dissection by the implements of white-coated anonymous bureaucracy- Christ as Joseph K. An objectified Christ, devoid of passion, arguably a more disturbing one than that of Gibson's, who though dripping with blood and wracked with pain, remains human.