The tradition of depicting sufferance in the Catholic and Protestant art

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

The passion of Christ is a popular theme in the Western Christian world, that is almost absent from the Orthodox churches. The later followed the tradition of symbolic representation in icons. When Renaissance came in the West, with its rediscovery of the human body as it was presented by the sculptures of Antiquity, the two worlds were already artistically divided. While the Orthodox had integrated icons in their daily cult, making the opposition to iconoclasts a defining aspect of their belief, the West lost the mystical dimension of painting. The Catholics favored the tangible alternative of sculpture, the decorative exuberance of baroque, or the faithful representation of the flesh in painting, thanks to highly skilled painters with advanced knowledge of human anatomy.
In the East, not only icons, but also narrative frescoes, that were meant to represent passages from the Gospel to an illiterate believer, remained symbolic, encouraging the viewer to use the imagination in order to perceive the ineffable. The Orthodox painting concentrated on the spiritual part, with ascetic figures that are said to prefigure the resurrected body from the Kingdom of God.

When the Reform established its place in a part of Europe, the Protestant churches chose a rather iconoclast aspect, sometimes without any painting. This austere interior was a reaction to the lavishing adornments of the Papal cathedrals and a reminder of the emphasis Martin Luther and Calvin put on the text of the Gospel and on the moral life.
The passion of Christ is almost a taboo theme in the East, where the representation of a suffering and temporarily defeated God is considered a disturbing scene. In an Eastern church it is much likely to find the representation of an imperial Christ sitting on His throne (the Pantokrator, or the Almighty, is almost a mandatory representation in the highest point of the inner dome). Here the Byzantine heritage manifests itself both by this royal like representation and by incorporating the speculative tradition of ancient Greek philosophy and oriental mysticism in art and the way of thinking.
In the West, Francisc of Assisi brought to attention the stations of the cross and the sacrifice of our Lord as a price for redeeming our sins. The legends of miracles performed by a large number of martyrs completed the mental landscape of the Christian in the Middle Age and beyond. The ordeal of Saint Sebastian, Saint Benedict and many others shook the sensibility of newly Christians, converted from barbaric tribes of Europe, that lacked the subtlety of the former Greco-Roman world.
The representation of the scene of Nativity using figurines or reenactments of the road of the cross are still used as an act of faith in many Catholic countries. In some Latin-American countries, even the crucifixion itself is reenacted during a bloody ritual that is to signify devotion to the extreme. In the same time, this remember of the sacred history takes the form of Gregorian hymns in the Eastern Church, which does not favor visual representation of the human nature of Christ, in favor of His divine nature.
Where symbols could not be used as a code and as a stairway to higher meanings, powerful images started to emerge: flagellation, wounds and miracles made obvious. Albrecht Durer, Diego Velazquez, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Rembrandt, Andrea Mantegna are just some prominent artists who impressed or even shocked the public with their views.
The Catholic church Johann Nepomuk in Vienna, near Prater, displays a collection of 14 frescoes by Joseph von Fuchrich on the passion of Christ. (The last two pictures in the above photo gallery are from the Vatican Museum.)
The church is dedicated to John Nepomuk, one of the saint patrons of Czech people and has an interesting story. It all started with an icon, Rosa Mystica, now exposed in the church. The icon was the only thing that survived from a fire that burnt the house it was in. So neighbors built a small wooden chapel for it on the spot. After the wooden chapel was in its turn destroyed by a storm, the believers finally decided to build a real church to host the icon that is said to have protected the neighborhood from the black plague.

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