Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Man of Sorrows

Michele Giambono’s “The Man of Sorrows” (circa 1420s) is easily one of the most shocking and morbid depictions of the resurrected Christ. Even compared to other paintings of the same genre, such as Meister Francke’s piece by the same name, Giambono’s stands out. I was very taken aback when I first encountered this piece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last May. The barely conscious, cadaverous Savior stands upright in his coffin, his bloody arms slump over the rim of the coffin displaying deep puncture wounds on his outturned palms. Behind him you find a crossbeam, adorned with three nails still imbedded in it with fresh blood dripping from it. Large globs of blood trail profusely from the thorny crown still tightly wound around his head, and his right side still bleeds from the centurion’s lance.

It is almost easy to miss the image of St. Francis standing to Christ’s left. The saint looks up with an expression of pained reverence at the risen savior. If you look closely, you will find a single strand of blood leaping out of Christ’s side, making a triangle as it pierces through both of Saint Francis’s hands and then returns into the nail wound on Christ’s own hand. This, quite literally, highlights the close tie of Francis to Christ through the saint’s own stigmata.

Why create such a horrid image of the Son of God? Because it demonstrates Christ’s dominance over life and death and tells us that there is nothing to fear. He was one of us; he lived among us and even died in the same manner as anyone else. This connects him to us and makes an impersonal, distant God become something much more personal and relatable. A God who suffers with us, shown in just such a state as this, is much more moving on a very deep level than any trite “footsteps in sand” imagery we are accustomed to these days. Rather, He bleeds and suffers with us as well as comforts us and watches over us. It also functions as a memento mori, an undeniable reminder that if even the Son of God can die, so you too must one day die. Meditating on this work is an intense religious experience certainly not for the faint of heart.

After dwelling on this painting, I couldn’t help but begin to see it in an alchemical light. I am reminded of what Philalethes said in the Fount of Chemical Truth, “For our water is a most pure virgin, and is loved of many, but meets all her wooers in foul garments, in order that she may be able to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy.” I cannot help but compare this to the Man of Sorrows as the ghastly Christ seems to represent the same lesson.

Philalethes also states, “To those who do not despise her foul exterior, she then appears in all her beauty, and brings them an infinite dower of riches and health.” After the remains are resurrected, the Bible tells us Christ later appeared to his disciples, but they were unable to recognize him in his purified form. I feel that this is also apparent in Giambono’s painting. The very horrible appearance of Christ is certainly off-putting, but if one were to embrace Him in this form, He would then appear in his glorious form.

The old story of St. Francs and the leper he encountered is also worth mentioning here. The story is recounted in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “One day, while crossing the Umbrian plain on horseback, Francis unexpectedly drew near a poor leper. The sudden appearance of this repulsive object filled him with disgust and he instinctively retreated, but presently controlling his natural aversion he dismounted, embraced the unfortunate man, and gave him all the money he had.”

After this mystical encounter, the young Francis truly set his foot upon the holy path which led him not only to sainthood, but to be the first to receive the marks of the stigmata.

We are taught today to shy away from the unpleasant and avoid the ugly parts of life. The Man of Sorrows, however, boldly states the opposite. The beauty within the unsightly is more profound than the obvious. Even in death there is hope and, yes, even beauty. It gives the hope that once one confronts the awful reality of this world, there is another realm to aspire to.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff O ! 'The Humiliated Christ in modern Russian thought' by Nadeijda Gorodetsky (SPCK 1938)is much along the same lines. As for alchemical allusions, the big link to Scripture is the stone which the builders have rejected. The alchemists also describe their stone as an orphan or worthless or even as dung. Basically as Jung recognised the stone and Christ are synonymous. But you've grasped the essence and expressed well in a good mix of references and your own original thought the meaning of this image; and why it continues to be spiritually profound two thousand years on, much more than any 'trite footsteps in the sand imagery', indeed !

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