Jesus’ crucifixion up close

"Christ at the Column," by Antonello da Messina, circa 1476. Photo: Public Domain

Spanning the gap between the late medieval world and the so-called modern age, a phenomenon called the devotio moderna reshaped European religious sensibilities. A variety of pious interests characterize this loose movement, which strove to bring greater humility and simplicity to Church life. Antonello da Messina’s gripping image of Christ at the Column, painted around 1476, captures something of the mood and spirituality of this time.

Devotion to the Passion was certainly nothing new in ecclesial life or art. The mendicant movements had put new emphasis on the poverty and suffering of Christ, and this is reflected in the art they produced. A distinct effort to project oneself emotionally into the imagery of a biblical scene is characteristic of the newer devotion, however. Ludolph of Saxony, a Carthusian, popularized this technique of prayer in his Vita Christi (1376), and the practice took hold, notably in Spain, where it shaped the famous Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  

Devotion to the Passion was certainly nothing new in ecclesial life or art.

Also known as Antonello degli Antoni, Antonello, though born in Sicily and apprenticed in Naples, belonged to this Spanish sphere of influence. After Alphonso V drove the French from Naples in 1443, both regions were under the rule of the Crown of Aragon. 

This Aragonese connection had two important effects on Antonello’s work. First, he absorbed the devotio moderna. Second, since Flemish works were being actively collected at the court of Naples, he came into contact with the painting techniques practiced in the northern renaissance. 

From this contact, Antonello (circa 1430–1479), gained a new interest in detail and became the first Italian painter to produce works in oil, enabling a vibrant new range of visual effects. The powerful synthesis he thus forged between the pursuit of simplicity, drawn both from his devotional setting as well as his rooting in the ideals of the Italian renaissance, and the new degree of illusionistic realism he borrowed from the north, is unmistakable in a work like Christ at the Column. 

Art historians once imagined that this “close-up” must have been cropped because it is so small (8 inches by 12 inches) and so unusually focused. In fact, it was meant as a portable pious image. Concentration upon the face was a special motif in Antonello’s art, for he was an enormously talented portraitist. 

Devotion to the Passion was certainly nothing new in ecclesial life or art.

In the same period, perhaps even the same year as Christ at the Column, Antonello applied this gift for portraiture with deep religious feeling and striking artistic innovation in his magnificent Palermo Annunciation. Here the artist broke radically with all the traditional canons of representation, situating the viewer directly in the place of the archangel Gabriel, as the one confronting the Virgin Mary face-to-face and uttering the angelic salutation, as she responds with a serenely startled gesture. 

The painter thus transports us from the state of observer into a state of active prayer, with the Hail Mary falling from our lips. It is a perfect illustration and indeed an exercise of the devotio moderna.  

So too with Christ at the Column, Antonello has boldly broken with the conventional representation of the Passion. This is not a scene of torture in any conventional sense. The flagellation suggested by the column is entirely hidden from our view. 

All focus has been redirected from the lashing to the interior experience of Christ, as we are plunged by the portrait into the inner meaning of the event. Here, however, there is no direct confrontation with the viewer as in the Annunciation. 

Antonello also painted an Ecce homo where Jesus stares into the viewer’s eyes with a look of horrible, crushing sorrow. In Christ at the Column, however, we instead penetrate an intimate glance exchanged between Jesus and his heavenly Father.

“Christ at the Column,” by Antonello da Messina, circa 1476. Photo: Public Domain

Jesus’ upward gaze is psychologically pregnant. It is possible to read the Lord’s look as though he is riveted by his mission and rapt in a grace streaming down from heaven, forgetful of the bodily suffering, which we also forget through the framing of the picture. The words of St. Paul might be recalled: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us” (Romans 8:18). 

It is also possible, however, to see another thought reflected in these eyes, dropping pained tears that mingle with beads of blood and sweat on Christ’s powerful chest — the first dew of the precious blood and water. Jesus questions heaven and searches, already silently asking, “Why have you abandoned me?” 

The twofold nature of Christ thus comes to superb and subtle expression. This is the Eternal Son in the form of a servant: mysteriously reigning in sovereign communion with the Father while suffering with us and whipped like a runaway slave.

Through the open mouth of Jesus, we almost can hear the groaning breath as he is scourged. The same gaping mouth appears again in Antonello’s beautiful and mournful Dead Christ Supported by an Angel. This is the holy mouth that once announced the Good News caught in the act of expiring, breathing out in bursts the final gift of his Spirit. 

Detail, “Dead Christ Supported by an Angel,” by Antonello da Messina, 1475- 1478. Photo: Public Domain

Antonello’s realism ultimately extends beyond the convincing details to the modeling of the sacred face itself. Jesus’ wispy beard, wide-set eyes, round face, and fleshy nose seem to reflect the holy image of Manoppello, a relic that claims to be the Veil of Veronica. Christ at the Column is meant to be a true icon reflecting the unveiled glory of God (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). 

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