Crucifixion workshop

I see before me crosses not all alike,
but differently made by different peoples:
some hang a man head downwards
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some force a stick upwards through his groin,
some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet.
I see cords, scourges,
and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint:
but I see Death also.
(Seneca, Consolatio ad Marciam, translated by Aubrey Stewart)

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Easter is coming and, like every year, on Good Friday the believers will commemorate the Passion of Jesus, nailed to the wood on the Golgotha. Are we really sure that the traditional representation of Christ on the cross is realistic? After all, also in the endless variations of the punishment’s scene that art history has been producing for many centuries, there always seem to be some discrepancies: sometimes the nails are driven through the Redeemer’s hands and feet, sometimes through his wrists. This confusion goes back a long time ago, to the early, rough translations of the Gospel of John in which the Greek word for “limb” was misinterpreted as “hand“.

How exactly did the crucifixion take place? And what caused the death of the condemned person?
Both historian and scientists have tried to answer these questions.

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Coeval sources lead to the assumption that the word “crucifixion” in Latin and Greek referred to different methods of execution, such as the impalement and the tying on a simple tree, and most likely these methods varied according to time and place.
The only thing we know for sure is that it was the most humiliating, long and painful punishment provided for by the judicial system at that time (at least in the Mediterranean Basin). Cicero himself defined it as “
the most cruel and sombre of all punishments“: the sufferings of the condemned person, hanged naked and exposed to public ridicule, were prolonged as much as possible by means of drugged drinks (myrrh and wine) or mixtures of water and vinegar which served to quench one’s thirst, stanch bleeding, revive and so on.
In rare cases death was accelerated. This happened to keep law and order, because some friend or relative of the condemned person had intervened, or according to specific local customs: the two methods most frequently used to put an end to the pain of the crucified were the spear thrust to the heart, that Jesus himself is traditionally believed to have received, and the so-called
crucifragium, namely the fracture of the legs by means of hammers or sticks, in order to take every support away from the condemned person, who choked because of the hyperextension of the ribcage.

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Three kinds of crosses were used by Romans for judicial punishments at the time of Jesus: the crux decussata, or St Andrew’s cross, consisted of two stakes fastened to form a X; the crux commissa, with stakes forming a T-shape; the crux immissa, the most famous cross, in which the horizontal beam (patibulum) was placed at two-thirds of the length of the vertical one (stipes). This arrangement allowed to put up the so-called titulus, a notice including the personal details of the condemned person, the charge and the sentence.

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Another rather ascertained detail was the presence of a support half-way of the stipes, that was called sedile in Latin. It offered a support to the body of the condemned person, so that he/she could carry its weight without collapsing, thus preventing her/him from dying too fast. From sedile is apparently derived the phrase “to sit on the cross”. More complicated was the use of the suppedaneum, the support which the feet were nailed to and maybe rested on, often represented in paintings of the crucifixion but never mentioned in ancient manuscripts.

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Although we now know many details about the cross itself, the methods of fastening were debated for a long time. The only skeleton ever found of a person condemned to crucifixion (discovered in 1968 around Jerusalem) had fractured legs and a nail into the outside of the ankle, which suggests that the feet were tied to the sides of the cross. But this doesn’t resolve the doubts that for many centuries have been tormenting theologians and believers. Where were the nails exactly driven? Through the hands or the wrists? Were the feet nailed to the front or to the sides of the stipes? Were the legs upright or bent at the knee?

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It may seem strange but this matter was long debated also in the field of science, especially towards the end of the nineteenth century. Medical researchers could rely on a continuous supplying of corpses, and amputated arms and legs, to sieve different hypothesis.

The theory that the nails were driven through the wrists, precisely between carpus and radius, had the advantage that this method probably allowed to slice the thumb’s median nerve and long flexor tendon, but without affecting arteries nor fracturing bones. On the other side, the idea that the Redeemer had been nailed through the wrists was considered – if not exactly heretic – at least risky by a part of Christian scientists: it certainly meant to disprove most of the traditional representations, but there was much more at stake. The actual theological issue concerned the stigmata. If Jesus had been nailed through the wrists, how could we explain the wounds that invariably appeared on the palms of people in the odour of sanctity? Maybe Our Lord Himself (that used to inflict stigmata as a punishment, but also as a sign of blissfulness) didn’t know where the nails had been driven? To accept the wrists theory meant to admit that the stigmatized person had been more or less unconsciously influenced by a wrong iconography, and that the origin of the sores was anything but ultramundane…

In order to repress these ignominious assumptions, around 1900, Marie Louis Adolphe Donnadieu, professor at the Catholic Faculty of Sciences in Lyon, decided to try once and for all a true crucifixion. He nailed a corpse to a wooden board, and even by a single hand.

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According to professor Donnadieu, the cruel photograph of the dead hanging by an arm, published in his Le Saint Suaire de Turin devant la Science (1904), undoubtedly proved that Jesus’ hands could support his body on the cross. The other scientists should recant their theories once and for all; Donnadieu’s only regret was not a moral one, but concerned the fact that “the light in the photograph didn’t offer the best aesthetic conditions“.

Unfortunately his dramatic demonstration didn’t silence opponents, not even in the ranks of the Catholic. Thirty years later doctor Pierre Barbet, first surgeon at the Paris Saint Joseph Hospital, criticized Donnadieu’s experiment in his text La passion de Jésus Christ selon le chirurgien (1936): “The picture shows a pathetic body, small, bony and emaciated. […] The corpse that I had crucified, instead […] was absolutely fresh and fleshy“. In fact, also Barbet had started to nail corpses, but in a more serious and programmatic way than Donnadieu.

 

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The meticulous research of Pierre Barbet undoubtedly includes him among the pioneers (they were few, to be pedantic) of medical studies about the Crucifixion, concerning in particular the wounds that marked the Shroud of Turin. Barbet came to the conclusion that the man represented on the Shroud had been nailed through the wrists and not the palms; that in the Shroud’s mark the thumb was missing because the median nerve had been cut off by the nail; that the man of the Shroud died of suffocation, when legs and arms were no more capable of supporting him.

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The last hypothesis, that was considered as the most reliable for many decades, was disproven by the last great expert in crucifixion, the famous American forensic pathologist and anthropologist Frederick Zugibe. He mainly studied between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. He didn’t have corpses to nail in his garage (as you can imagine, the vogue for crucifying corpses in order to investigate this kind of questions had definitely died out) and he carried out his researches thanks to a team of volunteers. Incidentally, to find these volunteers was easier than expected, because the members of a Christian congregation near his home queued up to play the role of the Saviour.
Zugibe built a handmade cross on which he tied his test subjects, constantly measuring their body functions – pressure, heartbeat, respiration, etcetera. He concluded that Jesus didn’t die of asphyxia, but of traumatic shock and hypovolemia.

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To complete the picture, other scholars assumed different causes of death for a crucified person: heart attack, acidosis, arrhythmia, pulmonary embolism, but also infections, dehydration, wounds caused by animals, or a combination of these factors. Whatever the ultimate cause, there was clearly only one way to get down off the cross.

Regarding the notorious nails and their entry wound, Zugibe believed that the upper part of the palm was perfectly capable to support the weight of the body, without causing bone fractures. He proved his theorem many times in the course of some dissections in the laboratory.

 

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Then, after dozens of years, “an unbelievable and unexpected event, extremely meaningful, took place in the coroner’s office, confirming the existence of this passage [inside the hand]. A young woman had been brutally stabbed on her entire body. I found a defence wound on her hand, because she had raised it in the attempt to protect her face from the ferocious aggression. The examination of this wound on the hand proved that […] the blade had crossed the “Z” area and the point had gone out on the back of the wrist exactly as can be seen on the Shroud. A radiography of the area proved that there were no fractures at all!“.

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The fact that a pathologist gets excited to the point of using an exclamation mark, during a murder victim autopsy, while thinking about the correlations between a stab, the Shroud of Turin and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ… well, this is not surprising in the slightest. After all, at stake here are a thousand years of religious imagery.

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The English new edition of the text by Pierre Barbet is A Doctor at Calvary. The conclusions of Zugibe are summed up in his essay Pierre Barbet Revisited, that can be consulted online.

Martiri

Roma, il Pomarancio e l’arte sacra crudele

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I martiri costituiscono uno dei temi prediletti dall’arte cristiana fin dagli albori. Eppure inizialmente le rappresentazioni dei supplizi subìti dai santi in testimonianza della loro fede mostravano comunque dei toni abbastanza neutri. Come scrive Umberto Eco nella sua Storia della bruttezza:

Raramente nell’arte medievale il martire è rappresentato imbruttito dai tormenti come si era osato fare col Cristo. Nel caso di Cristo si sottolineava l’immensità inimitabile del sacrificio compiuto, mentre nel caso dei martiri (per esortare a imitarli) si mostra la serenità serafica con cui essi sono andati incontro alla propria sorte. Ed ecco che una sequenza di decapitazioni, tormenti sulla graticola, asportazione dei seni, può dar luogo a composizioni aggraziate, quasi in forma di balletto. Il compiacimento per la crudeltà del tormento sarà caso mai reperibile più tardi […], nella pittura seicentesca.

In realtà già nel Tardo Manierismo, vale a dire verso la fine del ‘500, la Controriforma aveva riportato una rigorosa ortodossia nell’arte sacra; nel 1582 il Cardinale Gabriele Paleotti pubblica il suo fondamentale Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane, in cui vengono dettate le direttive iconografiche ecclesiastiche da seguire. Da questo momento gli artisti dovranno concentrarsi su scene bibliche educative, di immediata lettura, allontanandosi dai temi classici e attenendosi scrupolosamente a quanto riportato nelle Scritture; nel caso dei martiri, si dovrà cercare di rendere il più possibile concreta la descrizione della sofferenza, in modo da favorire l’immedesimazione del fedele. In questo clima di propaganda, nacquero quindi affreschi e dipinti di una violenza senza precedenti.

A Roma soprattutto si trovano alcune chiese particolarmente ricche di simili raffigurazioni. La più significativa è quella di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio; poco distante si trova la Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo; in via Nazionale, invece, sorge la Basilica di San Vitale. Innumerevoli altri esempi sono sparsi un po’ ovunque nella capitale, ma queste tre chiese da sole costituiscono una sorta di enciclopedia illustrata della tortura.

In particolare le prime due ospitano gli affreschi di Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio (ma attenzione, perché il nomignolo venne dato anche a suo figlio Antonio e al pittore Cristoforo Roncalli). Autore manierista ma lontano dagli eccessi bizzarri del periodo, Niccolò Circignani mostrava una spiccata teatralità compositiva, e un’esecuzione semplice ma efficace, dai colori vivaci e incisivi.

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Il ciclo del martiriologio a Santo Stefano Rotondo è impressionante ancora oggi per il realismo cruento e a tratti rivoltante delle scene: dal supplizio di Sant’Agata, a cui le tenaglie dilaniano il petto, alla lapidazione del primo martire della storia (Santo Stefano, appunto), fino alla “pena forte e dura“, le pareti della chiesa sono un susseguirsi di santi bolliti vivi o soffocati dal piombo fuso, lingue strappate, occhi e budella sparse, corpi fatti a pezzi, mazzolati, bruciati, straziati in ogni possibile variante.

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Sempre al Pomarancio sono attribuite altre opere situate nella Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo. Qui San Simone viene segato a metà a partire dal cranio, San Giacomo Maggiore decapitato, San Bartolomeo scorticato vivo, e via dicendo.

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Nella Basilica di San Vitale possiamo ammirare il santo omonimo che viene prima torturato sulla ruota, e poi sepolto vivo – anche se in questo caso i dipinti sono ad opera di Agostino Ciampelli. La chiesa contiene anche decapitazioni e teste mozzate.

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Certo, nelle intenzioni queste scene dovevano essere educative, e spingere all’imitazione di questi esempi di fede incrollabile. Ma che dire dell’evidente compiacimento nel mostrare le varie torture e i supplizi? Il nostro sadismo non è forse stuzzicato da queste rappresentazioni?

È questo fascino oscuro che spinge Eco a parlare di “erotica del dolore“; e d’altronde Bataille termina il suo excursus nell’arte erotica (Le lacrime di Eros) sulla fotografia di un condannato alla pena cinese del lingchi, la morte dai mille tagli, “inevitabile conclusione di una storia dell’erotismo” e simbolo dell’ “erotismo religioso, l’identità dell’orrore e del religioso“.
Fotografia talmente insostenibile che il filosofo confessa: “a partire da questa violenza – ancora oggi io non riesco a propormene un’altra più folle, più orribile – io fui così sconvolto che accedetti all’estasi“. Rapimento mistico, orgasmo e orrore sono, per Bataille, inscindibili.

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Questa seduzione ambigua delle immagini violente, però, è intrinseca in ogni crudeltà. Il concetto trova infatti origine in due ceppi etimologici diversi – da una parte cruor, la carne sanguinosa, il sangue sparso, e dall’altra crudus, il crudo, tutto ciò che è animalesco, primordiale e non ancora conquistato dalla cultura umana (conoscere il fuoco e utilizzarlo per cuocere il cibo è, sostiene Lévi-Strauss ne Il crudo e il cotto, uno dei momenti fondanti dell’umanità, rispetto alla vita bestiale).
In questo senso la crudeltà oscilla fra due opposti perturbanti: l’orrore e l’oscenità della violenza, e il segreto giubilo di vedere riaffiorare l’istinto represso, che minaccia l’ordine costituito.
Starebbe in questo nucleo di sentimenti contrapposti la calamita che attira il nostro sguardo verso simili immagini, eccitandoci e repellendoci al tempo stesso, e forse facendoci in questo modo accedere alla parte più nascosta del nostro essere.

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Per approfondire i risvolti concettuali della crudeltà, il saggio di riferimento è l’eccellente Filosofia della crudeltà. Etica ed estetica di un enigma di Lucrezia Ercoli.
Se vi interessa conoscere meglio la figura del Pomarancio, ecco un esaustivo podcast di Finestre sull’arte.

Il Tempio delle Torture

Wat Phai Rong Wua.

Se visitate la Thailandia, ricordatevi questo nome. Si tratta di un luogo sacro, unico e assolutamente weird, almeno agli occhi di un occidentale. Tempio buddista, mèta annuale di migliaia di famiglie, è celebre per ospitare la più grande scultura metallica del Buddha. Ma non è questo che ci interessa. È famoso anche per il suo Palazzo delle Cento Spire, ma nemmeno questo ci interessa. Quello che segnaliamo qui sono le dozzine di figure e complessi statuari che descrivono torture e sevizie riservate dai demoni dell’inferno alle anime in pena.

Infilzate in faccia, o intrappolate nelle fauci di orrendi mostri, con le interiora esposte, trafitte da spade e lance, queste sculture lasciano ben poco all’immaginazione: se non diciamo le preghierine alla sera, non ce la passeremo tanto bene nell’aldilà. Questo macabro e violentissimo “parco di attrazioni” ha per i fedeli un valore educativo. È una visualizzazione grafica e figurativa della sofferenza e dell’inferno.

Certo, c’è da dire che il rapporto dei thailandesi con la morte è meno travagliato del nostro; eppure, per quanto a prima vista il giardino delle torture di Wat Phai Rong Wua possa sembrare una soluzione estrema per colpire la fantasia dell’uomo illetterato, ricordiamoci che anche le nostre chiese abbondano di dipinti e allegorie non meno violente o macabre. Ormai abituati all’arte del Novecento, che si è man mano astratta dal bisogno di veicolare o avere un significato, ci dimentichiamo facilmente del ruolo avuto anche nella nostra storia dell’arte figurativa: quella di educare le masse, di proporsi come libro illustrato, e di servire quindi alla formazione di un immaginario anche per quanto riguarda i mondi a venire.

Scoperto via Oddity Central.