Passion Of The Christ Imagery In Renaissance Culture 

The Renaissance era, which extends from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, was the theater of cultural, political, economic, and literary revolutions that contributed to the revival of classical forms developed by the Greek and Romans, but also shed light on the issue of individuals living secular lives. This period of time was one of exploration and re-discovery, as many artists tried to appropriate the classical authority of art and translate it in a way that showed their own artistic persona, and their knowledge of nature. However, the patronage of the clergy restricted greatly the artists’ creativity, as the emphasis was put on the need to educate the masses on biblical stories, rather than to solely convey the beautiful. The print revolution was then started in order to increase accessibility to information, but also to promote the universalization of said information, which then made possible the expansion of Christianity. This newly acquired hands-on devotional practice allowed the demystification of Christian rituals which allowed the faithful to feel closer to their God, based on the topic of the prints, as the appeal for prints was found in the subject matter rather than in their aesthetic aspect. Thereby, artists would constantly represent parts of Jesus-Christ’s life stressing his human nature, and showing how he suffered in order for his followers to empathize with him and achieve a spiritual edification. In this sense, this essay aims at showing how renaissance art, deeply influenced by classical models, used the passion of Christ’s imagery in order to shed light on Christ’s humanity and help the faithful identify with His sufferings so that they can also experience the holy elation.

In medieval society, Christ’s life was perceived as the archetype of his teachings, and therefore it was common for artists to portray Him in ways that helped most parishioners to identify with His humanity, and therefore feel closer to Him. If His entire life was punctuated by miraculous events and teachings to the masses that represented very important parts of Christ’s story, the culminant part of His life was definitely the moments between the last supper and His crucifixion, also known as the Passion of Christ. Although restricted by the need to submit to cultural tradition, most European artworks that feature events of the passion of Christ seem to be at the intersection of the artists’ imagination and the society’s expectations, as the sacred events were depicted in such a way that conveyed their overly emotional aspect, but also the artists’ own perspective, while retaining the divine layer of the subject matter. Albrecht Dürer, a pioneer of a very realistic renaissance art culture, illustrated this greatly with his woodcut The Last Supper of 1523, which focuses on a theological debate over the significance and conduct of the Eucharist in the early years of the Reformation. His depiction of the last supper was very different from what was “traditional” at the time, as the scene showed Christ telling his “eleven” disciples – after the departure of Judas the traitor – to love one another as He has loved them, but also featured a wine chalice, lacked the presence of the half-eaten lamb, and showed a certain realism as we can see the figures’ toes under the table. All these peculiarities aimed at avoiding the Eucharist controversy of the time, and they reflect Dürer’s protestant’s leanings, Lutheran sympathies, and also his interest in naturalistic representation. The artist succeeded in conveying a highly spiritual event in a very human setting without taking away the divine meaning of the scene but adding to it through the promotion of Protestant beliefs that started a virtual dialogue between religions. Indeed, this devotional woodcut shows the ingenuity of renaissance artists who were able to bend the strict rules of the clergy in order to provide the faithful with prints that deepened their relationship with their God.

Moreover, the renaissance era was literally a “revival” of the classical forms, as artists borrowed from the ancient culture to give more life to their works, and to stimulate a new interpretation of biblical stories depicted on mediums which consequently acted as mediators between humans and the deity. In fact, who was represented was more important than how they were represented during the Renaissance, but that did not stop artists from improving their representation processes in order to tell stories with an appeal to the pathos, which helped the faithful to identify with Christ. And even though the believers then empathized with His emotions, it is the human nature of Christ that gave them hope for eternal life as they meditated on prints during their daily devotional practices. Many illustrations of the passion of Christ could serve as examples of emotionally charged images, but The Agony in the Garden (ca. 1504) and Pilate Washing His Hands of 1507 were probably two of the saddest moments of the passion of Christ. In the first image, the figure of Christ kneeling in a prayer posture with His disciples asleep around him, all shown in a quite delicate landscape gives a certain contrast to the event, as the tranquility of the image would soon be disturbed by the violence of Christ’s arrest. In fact, this is the moment where He prays for God to deliver him from His fate, and the angel with the chalice in the top right corner is the embodiment of that prayer for God to “let this cup pass from Him”. The very human nature of Christ is emphasized here, as He fears death and in the last moments of His life calls on God for deliverance, which is nowadays very common for Christians. After that, the woodcut depicting the trial of Christ during which Pilate washes his hands once again gives the viewers an opportunity to identify with Jesus. Indeed, even though He is the son of God, he is being judged by humans who want only his death with no legitimate criminal evidence, which forces Pilate to wash his hands in order to avoid personal responsibility in Jesus’ death. The injustice of the trial reminds the faithful of the unfairness of life itself, and as Jesus who is holy couldn’t do anything to change his own fate, this devotional print encourages believers to look up to God in moments of distress, for only He can help them. The fact that Christ doesn’t have a halo in either of these prints adds to His humanity and makes his character more accessible to the common parishioner.

The ancient culture that represented a basis for renaissance art greatly improved techniques of representation of biblical stories, and helped switch the focus of art from “who was represented” to “how they were represented”. A lot of artists would use techniques such as hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, and many others in order to create the illusion of depth, to deepen the shading effects, and to depict biblical events in a three-dimensional plane that was more natural. All these innovations made the religious revolution of renaissance possible through the early relief prints, and once again Albrecht Dürer showed that his technique was way ahead of its time through The Crucifixion of 1498, which connotation has a dual nature putting, in contrast, the mourning followers of Christ and the detached murderous roman soldiers shown on either side of the cross. The very detailed background shows the artist’s close observation of nature, and his almost perfect use of the hatching technique increases the accuracy of the shading effect which naturalizes the event and helps the faithful grasp the fact that Jesus was once among them. However, instead of just depicting Christ as nothing more than just a human being, Dürer puts Christ in the center with a halo on His head, and three angels collecting His precious blood with chalices. This representation shows the faithful that although Christ suffered human pain, His perseverance helped Him regain a divine status, and it gives hope to anyone who finds themselves overwhelmed by sufferings.

Finally, if the passion of Christ only extended to His crucifixion, the days after his death was also very emotionally charged for Christians around the world, and the Renaissance artists made sure that the faithful kept a memory of the wonderful three days that followed their Messiah’s death. In fact, during those three days, the followers of Christ were mourning as they were getting ready to bury Him, and it was a time for each of them to reflect on Christ’s life in order to then be able to live more like Him. Moretto Da Brescia who painted The Entombment of 1554, stressed Christ’s lifetime sufferings through the fabrication of time, going from this particular scene to the entirety of His life on earth. The illusion of perspective created through innovative techniques of representation shows the great distance between the crucifixion and the burial site of Christ, which can be seen as a metaphor of His journey finally coming to an end and emphasized by a twilight sky that has a dual connotation of end and beginning. His scarred body is proof of his selfless sacrifice for the faithful, and the nails and crown of thorns held by the people in the back are sinful relics of His passion which helped viewers understand who was responsible for Christ’s death. More than that, Mary’s grief is very well painted through her aged face and helpless gaze as she holds the dead proof of her blind obedience to God. The position of her hands (one on Christ’s abdomen, and the other on His chest) shows the full cycle of sufferings that Jesus’ life was, and the fact that she is cradling His lifeless body humanizes the scene, as the faithful see a mother holding her son one last time before laying him to rest forever. The ancient culture being the root of the Renaissance art, the artist paints Christ in a stone-like manner that reveals His ideal body proportions diminished by starvation and death but also mimics the fabric hanging from his waist and the boulders in the background. All of this gives the painting an interesting resemblance with Michelangelo’s Pieta and shows that not only the ancient culture was revived during the renaissance era, but also Christ through every single devotional print manufactured.

In conclusion, the printmaking revolution of the renaissance helped the clergy spread the gospel, and promote a Christian conversion based on the life of Jesus Christ, which was then made more accessible to the masses. The interest in the ancient culture represented a huge reason for the improvement of methods of representations, which went from the humanism current to the naturalism and helped create more life-like figures that increased the feeling of closeness with the art. The passion of Christ being the climactic part of His life, Renaissance artists used their newly acquired and improved techniques to depict biblical stories in very humanistic contexts in order to help the faithful identify with Christ’s sufferings and thus achieve the same exaltation as His. 

09 March 2021
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