SLAMMING CHRIST TO THE CROSS: THE SEMIOTICS OF THE CRUCIFIX: PART I

“You made your bed in sorrow
now sleep in it like a man.”
– Jimmie Rodgers, “99 Years Blues”

In the traditional images of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ by his devoted followers, he rarely smiles. Sometimes he looks like he is almost grinning, since, being god incarnate (a weighty responsibility to be sure), he knows something his followers don’t (but perhaps would like to).

Of course when he’s portrayed as on the cross, spikes driven in hands and feet, a spear wound to his right side (nowhere near the heart, despite myths in some quarters), we can expect him not to find anything amusing going on.

It should be noted that the crucified die of suffocation, as gravity pulls the weight of their chests down, eventually collapsing their lungs. The spear thrust, rather than a gratuitous act of spite, would actually have been an act of mercy, as drawing out the abdominal fluids, the collapse of the chest would have been hastened, hastening death in turn.

However, this slight mercy would not have lessened the immediate suffering – it’s no fun hanging around with spikes through your appendages, however briefly.
So, we are left with a rather simple empirical question: Why is he not grimacing in pain?

He is spiked to the cross with arms outstretched, legs straight down, crossed at the ankles (as they are pressed to the cross with the same spike). The body is lean. Occasionally he is presented nude, but more often he wears a loin cloth. Although some artists have attempted to the body as ascetic (the Florentine terracotta of “Christ Showing the wounds in his Side” is pretty grisly), it is usually portrayed as having a thin but well-developed musculature. Due to the tension of the unnatural position, the torso has an ‘hourglass’ shape to it.

But it is the face that really draws attention. He is presented with long, unruly, dark brown hair, with a rough but not lengthy beard. The features are genotypically Semitic. (Given their hegemonic control over Christian iconography, if the Italians themselves were not themselves genotype inheritors of Semitic traits, the history of Jewish life in Europe might have been more unpleasant than it was. It is always good to have some feature one’s oppressors admire that they can’t take away.)

The eyes, when open, are remarkably oval, the pupils dark, but their expression is rather empty. Believing artists seem to have a hard time finding some way to depict emotion in them. The “Saint Veronica at the Sudarium” by the Master of Saint Veronica, portraying the Saint holding up the cloth with which she wiped Jesus’ face – still bearing the impress of his features as portrait – is especially telling. The eyes stare out at the world from this double canvass with no special inquisitiveness, no focus. The face is so expressionless, the lineal features of it are barely visible shadowings. This is the face of a man who doesn’t appear to feel passionately or intensely.

When on the cross, the head is usually tilted to the right. The significance of this gesture has always eluded me. In heaven he will sit “on the right hand of god;’ so, in the last moments before death, is he preparing to look away from god (i.e., away from himself as Father)? But the ‘right hand of god’ can only be a flourish of speech; god could surely have no ‘right hand,’ he would never need a hand?

The face is calm; when portrayed as expressive, the typical expression is that of sorrow. A non-crucifixion image brings this out splendidly, the 16th century “Man of Sorrows (in the style of Jan Mostaert). The brows tilt down from the center (not towards it), the cheeks are drawn down straight, the corners of the mouth duplicate the gesture of the brows. An image of sorrow expressed.

Why is this man not in anguish? On the cross, Jesus is said to have cried out in despair, “My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” We do not often see this crucial depicted. Yet it is the crucible of the crucifixion, the moment Jesus takes upon himself the burden of original sin, before submitting himself to his own divine mercy – “into your hands I commend my spirit” – thus liberating his beloved children from the retributions of divine law. This is supposedly the moment when the whole incarnation at last reaches its culmination as passion. Yet this moment is rarely portrayed. (I can’t even recall any image I’ve seen of it.)

Spikes are driven through his body, but he expresses no pain. Driven to despair for the sake of reconciliation, but he expresses neither despair not anguish. He doesn’t even express the satisfaction of salvation, though supposedly this is what the moment is all about.

(But god’s mercy really doesn’t seem to distribute any happiness by the necessity of its own logic. Even when generous, god seems rather whimsical with his grace – rather in the manner of a good-natured bully – ‘Ya want some? Okay, sure, I can give it to ya, just beg a little….’)

Jesus is typically presented as the portrait of unrealized potential – a young man slaughtered, redeemed but unrewarded, a god who must first forgive himself, though he finds no satisfaction in it. A failure.

He is sad. That’s it. That’s his great gift to the world, his offer to the suffering multitudes who come to him for salvation: sorrow.

(Note: The Images referred to in this part can be found in: The Images of Christ, with commentary by Gabriele Finaldi and others, National Gallery and Yale University, 2000.)

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