The Crucified Christ

This crucified Christ in the RISD Museum’s collection evocatively captures Christ’s essence as both man and God. The starkly rendered outline of his ribs and the wound on his right side reference the fragility and suffering of his human body. Yet, the serenity of his face staring calmly down and to the left, the way his body seems to float rather than hang, and the movement captured in the sweeping of his perizonium, or loincloth, behind him proclaim Christ’s transcendence beyond the flesh, thereby asserting his divinity. This emphasis on Christ’s triumph over death is very characteristic of crucifixes produced in the twelfth century. 

As art historians Walter Cahn and Linda Seidel indicate in their description of the cross in Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections, this crucified Christ shares particular stylistic similarities with other crucifixes produced in northern Spain in the twelfth century.1 Though clearly executed by different hands, this group exhibits a similar treatment of the ribs as clear lines meeting in an arc with the sternum rendered as a simple half-circle. They likewise possess very similar facial features to that of the RISD corpus: a hairline that comes low over the brow in thick, geometrical strands parted in the center; long, oblong faces; and heavy lidded eyes, the top lid half-lowered in a downward gaze. All four figures have pointed stares down and to one side. 

The RISD crucifix is constructed of four separate pieces: a face, two arms, and a trunk that comprises the neck, torso, and legs. Whereas the Cloister’s Christ is attached at the base of the neck, the RISD example has an autonomous face that extends below the neck and is set into the chest itself. Two nails set into the very base of the neck attach the face to the head behind, which is apiece with the torso and the legs. These nails may have been covered with gesso and linen and painted to conceal them. In a well-preserved example in the Cloisters, similar nails are very clearly visible above the paint, perhaps indicating a later restoration. The disparate pieces of this corpus necessitate and permit such alterations and additions. Indeed, Cahn and Seidel believe the arms on the RISD sculpture to be later proxies.2 While the face is likewise separate from the body and thus ripe for replacement, its close similarity of style to those sculptures mentioned above suggests that it is likely original. 

The face differs from its original appearance in its lack of the gesso, linen, and paint that would have covered it. Though the surface of the wood is now bare and bereft of any signs of such surface treatment, evidence of paint can be found under the perizonium and evidence of the application of linen occurs on the inside of the proper left leg. As mentioned above, wooden sculptures crafted from several parts often had gesso and linen applied over the joint. The resulting layer was then painted to create a flush surface. This figure also does not have a crown, like many of the contemporary examples. While he may well not have ever possessed such an accessory, there is a chance a separate crown was placed upon his head. Also missing from our view of this work is the cross onto which it was originally mounted. The cross to which this Christ was affixed upon its arrival in RISD Museum appears to have been added later on in the biography of the figure, probably in the nineteenth century. The crosses of both the Majestat Batlló in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona and the Cloisters’ Crucifix—two crucifixes rendered in similar styles to the RISD example—were painted not only on the front, but also on the back, as was often the case in this time period. We might guess that the cross on which this Christ was hung was painted in a similar manner.

It seems a fair assumption that if such attention were lavished upon the back of the crucifix, the community or artists who created it expected the piece to be seen from both sides. The most obvious solution to such visibility requirements is the suspension of the cross from the ceiling, as was common over altars or on choir screens. The large size of this figure and the tilt of the head down and to the left suggest just such a view from below. In such a configuration, the participants in the liturgical life of the church would each undergo different visual experiences of the piece. Janice Mann’s article on the Majestat Batlló in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya suggests that in Catalonia, such crosses were also commonly hung in church portals or above altars dedicated specifically to Christ. She argues that the paint would be seen in procession, rather than in the context of the church.3  

The construction of the Majestat Batlló also suggests other possibilities for how medieval individuals interacted with these crucifixes both visually and physically. The back of the Majestat Batlló shows signs of disassembly and reassembly, suggesting that the Christ was perhaps taken on and off the cross at different times. The community likely utilized this flexibility to represent either the crucifixion or the recumbent Christ, depending upon the liturgical calendar. This adaptability leads us to question whether or not these figures were taken apart and reassembled in conjunction with different functions. Might the RISD Christ have been removed from his cross and carried or laid out without it? Or could his arms be removed and laid beside him, converting him from a crucified Christ to a recumbent one? If gesso had been applied to his shoulders, as has been preserved on the shoulders of the Cloisters’ figure, such an adjustment would have been impossible. Yet, while processions and the arrangements of these pieces provide interesting possibilities for the use of the form of Christ crucified, we cannot forget that the RISD figure stands seven feet tall, and would thus have proved a heavy and rather unwieldy, although not impossible, subject. The importance of these examinations of the possible lives of these pieces within the communities to which they belonged lies in the reminder that these figures once had evocative and sometimes active lives in interactive environments outside the often sterile and stagnant context of the modern museum.

Laura Chilson-Parks is a second-year PhD student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University, as well as a fellow in Brown’s S4 Program. She studies the architectural history and archaeology of medieval monasticism.

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  • 1Walter Cahn and Linda Seidel, eds., Romanesque Sculpture in American Collections, vol. 2: New England Museums (New York: ICMA and Burt Franklin Press, 1979), 29.
  • 2Ibid., 30.
  • 3Janice Mann, “Majestat Batlló,” in The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500–1200, ed. Jerrilynn Dodds (New York: 1993), 324.