Friday, March 16, 2018

Cranach’s Little Reality Check

Copyright © Edward Riojas

We have been inoculated to the horrors of crucifixion. In part, time has done this. Culture has added to it. Even our own striving to make Christ’s death seem more special has complicated things.

One need only open a jewelry box to find proof as much. While I am certainly not against displaying crosses and crucifixes, when forced to think on it, precious metals and diamonds somehow seem far removed from the reality of a Roman torture device. When Fabergé gets into the act, you know a major threshold has been crossed.

For these reasons, I am grateful for the jarring images that occasionally catch my attention. Lucas Cranach the Elder’s “Crucifixion” woodcut is one such image.

As was the rule during the Northern Renaissance, historical accuracy of costume and place was exchanged for what the artist knew. The setting, dress, armor, and trappings shown in Cranach’s 12 by 14 inch woodcut are distinctly sixteenth century German, including the flamboyance of feathered caps and puffed sleeves that would have been absent in Jerusalem. One might chalk it up to an already-diminishing sense of Biblical history during the Renaissance. And then Cranach throws a curve ball.
"Crucifixion" Lucas Cranach the Elder. 1502
(Museum of Prints and Drawings, Berlin)

While the pose of Jesus Christ follows formula depictions, one of the malefactors is shown in a morbid pose that stuns the viewer. The print shows that, while German dress had become more refined than Biblical garb, regard for criminals had taken a step backward. The man is hung upside down with an obvious broken back, and garroted by his own weight on the cross. So much for the advancement of civilization, and a kinder, gentler kingdom.

What is more, there is not simply a lone skull beneath the cross – as would usually be the case in giving a nod to “the place of the skull,” or acknowledging the spotty tradition that Christ was crucified over Adam's grave. Rather, several bodies lie rotting beneath the hooves of war horses. The viewer can almost sense the stench.

This scene is unsettling. It is raw and unorthodox. It does not back away from the reality of pain or punishment or death. It is not the kind of thing that would inspire a jeweled and enameled Fabergé pendant. It causes us to rethink our awful contribution to that singular, salvific act which our Lord endured on our behalf. It stops us from glorying in humanity. And ourselves. For all these reasons, Cranach’s little print is well worth noting.

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