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The Passion in Art History

From the 5th century, culminating with Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ in the 21st, scenes of the crucifixion have offered the Church pause for reflection and contemplation.

The hour of the crucifixion drew near. I was a boy, early 1950s, at a Good Friday service on the "Seven Last Words from the Cross." The service was as no other. We were going to figuratively find our place at the foot of the cross. Three hours later, worship ended with the sorrowful words of the haunting spiritual, "Were you there when they crucified our Lord?"

Attempting to capture the Father and the Son in images has often been controversial.

I remember it vividly. It is moving, spine-chilling stuff. The Gospels inform us about fewer than 100 days in the life of Jesus, but of His last two or three days we have great detail, culminating in what is almost an hour-by-hour account of Good Friday, and moment by moment detail of His last three hours. This time in His life, the tortured end of it, is traditionally called "the Passion," a Greek word for "suffering." It encompasses the events of Jesus' life from the confrontation in Gethsemane, His trial and mocking and crucifixion.

Mel Gibson may be the latest to offer a creative interpretation of the Passion of Christ to the masses. He is certainly not the first. The earliest images of the Passion of Jesus are on fourth-century sarcophagi, decorated stone coffins, which feature scenes of His betrayal, arrest and trial.

Scenes of the crucifixion began to appear in the fifth century in marvellously decorated Gospel books. They reflect the Church's growing understanding of Christ's death as both an expression of God's love and a revelation of how believers come to live free of the fear of death.

The fully developed crucifixion scene appeared 100 years later. Historians of Christian art suggest that three "icons" (the Greek word for "image") established the image of the dead Christ, shown with His mother and the apostle John at the foot of the cross, as the standard depiction. They date from the seventh and eighth centuries and may still be seen at the great monastery on Mount Sinai.

Attempting to capture the Father and the Son in images has often been controversial. Such image making was banned during the "iconoclastic controversy" (about 725 to 842). But the making of images was restored again to the life of the Church and the theme of God's human death began to flower in Christian imagery.

It is in the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages that the Passion comes to dominate the worship space. The Passion and crucifixion of Jesus held a special appeal in the cultural context of the evangelization of northern Europe and the indigenous population, whose religious world was preoccupied with death and demonic spirits.

Some scholars believe the focus on the cruel and gruesome aspects of the Passion was also a response to the plagues that devastated Europe. The Church sought to cultivate the art of dying in the midst of a culture of death. Christ's suffering was a way to respond to the collective trauma of the age.

The churches of the Reformation, in their early development, stripped and destroyed much of the religious imagery in Catholic churches. In most cases, however, they kept images of the crucifixion and moved them to centre stage.

As the great Evangelical revivals swept across Europe and North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, imagery drawing on the Passion was amplified, not in the visual arts, but in sermon and song.

In Europe the image of the crucifixion was a mainstay in the Pietist movements that brought a renewal in the 19th century, not unlike the Reformation itself. The Pietists sought to restore the existential claims of faith and saw in the crucifixion the gift of grace that made it possible for the faithful to snatch life from death, in a kind of imitation of Christ.

For Mel Gibson it was a book from this era that he says influenced him to make the movie: The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Anne Catherine Emmerich. Emmerich was a German nun (1774-1824). Her book contains her visions and reflections concerning the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, the arrest, the scourging, the crucifixion and the resurrection.

(The text is available at

All in all, the presentation of the Passion of Christ is deeply rooted in the history of art in the Church. From early scenes etched on a coffin to feature films in the 21st century, these images have always provoked some, perplexed others, and deeply moved many.

David J. Goa is curator emeritus at the Provincial Museum of Alberta. He conceived and created the international exhibition Anno Domini: Jesus Through the Centuries in the year 2000.

Originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2004.




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