Old Master Paintings

Christ in the Ablative: Botticelli’s ‘Man of Sorrows’

By Alexander Nagel
Sandro Botticelli, Man of Sorrows

His gaze is steady, but not in the way of the timeless visions of the Salvator Mundi. He seems to have brought us into view and is now looking into us. He is centered in the picture but not with perfect frontality and symmetry. His eyes, nose and mouth are all uneven, and a slight sway in his neck suggests that the body is moving into position, as we do when being photographed. He is not a crystalline form that exists independent of us, but a soft and responsive being who is here because we are. He is vulnerable, he has suffered, his eyes are slightly bloodshot, yet the abuses are not happening now; we are not seeing a close-up of a scene from the Passion. His arms and hands are bound with rope, but he seems free, his hands crossed over his chest in a willed gesture of humility and piety. Suffering is just now part of him. His lips are slightly parted, sighing or speaking an appeal.

Even if we are not faced with any one episode, what we see is closely tied to specific moments of the Passion story. The dark red tunic and the ropes pull us toward the moment after the trial of Jesus when he is mocked by Roman soldiers who clothe him with a robe of "purple" (Mark 15:17) or "scarlet" (Matthew 27:28), a royal color, and put a crown of thorns on his head, kneeling before him braying, "Hail, king of the Jews!” This moment of mocking reverence reverberated with holy irony in the ears of Christians, who understood what the soldiers knew not—that what they said in mockery was more than true, for Christ was not only “king of the Jews” but Lord of creation. Holy irony was a trademark of Christians, worshippers of a suffering God; what to the rest of the world looks like an abject and humiliated body they took as the object of their highest reverence. During the later Middle Ages, images and texts produced in the Latin West focused with increasing fascination on the gruesome details of the death of Jesus, thus sharpening the irony.

Botticelli’s piteous portrait of Jesus draws on the dissonance generated by the scene of the mocking—we are at close quarters with the bound prisoner, invited to inhabit the scene of mocking and to see through it, to recognize in the mock purple and the miserable crown the ironic emblems of true Lordship. But the painting does not depict that episode. Right there on his hands we see the wounds—unhealed but bloodless and clean—produced when they were nailed to the cross, long after the mocking. The fingers of the left hand reveal the opening in his chest, the final wound of the Passion, made by a soldier’s lance while the body was still on the cross to make sure it was dead. Although Jesus had shed the tunic before being nailed to the wood, the garment is now customized, post-mortem, with an almond-shaped aperture to make the wound accessible. We are beyond sequential time.

Signs of more than one episode have been compiled and fused into an image that emblematizes the Passion as a whole. Behind Jesus, a circular ballet of angels painted in ethereal white and grey hold implements employed in his torture and death—in clockwise sequence, the ladder used to lower the body from the cross, the whip of the flagellation, the lance, the nails, the cross, the winding cloth in which the body was shrouded, the column to which he was bound in the flagellation, the pincers that removed the nails, and the sponge with vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross. Forming a cloudy and mobile aureole for his head, the angels cover their eyes so as not to see.

Fig. 1: Akra Tapeinosis (Utmost Humiliation), or Man of Sorrows, Mosaic icon, Byzantine, 13th–century, Rome, Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

The main image-stream informing Botticelli’s composite painting was the tradition of the Man of Sorrows, an image type that came to the West via Byzantine icons. The mosaic icon in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, which carries a Greek inscription that reads “Utmost Humiliation,” is a famous example imported to Italy in the thirteenth century (fig. 1). It shows a figure of the dead Christ represented upright but not attached to the cross or to any episode of the Passion narrative. The paradox of Christ's dead but standing figure expresses a mysterious efficacy within the dead body, suggesting the life-giving virtues of Christ's sacrifice. The Byzantine Man of Sorrows was one of several images developed to meet the changing demands of the Eastern Passion liturgy, which from the eleventh century on had been greatly enriched by a series of new texts and rites. Its synthetic qualities enabled this single image to serve for the various readings and prayers that composed the new Passion services.

After it was introduced into the West, the image type soon achieved enormous popularity. Commonly called imago pietatis, or image of pity, it brought a new physical and emotional immediacy to representing the theological idea that the death of Jesus was a sacrifice that redeems all humans of their sins and thus gives them a path to heaven. Hans Belting showed that the image encapsulated key elements of the Christian doctrine of redemption: pietas refers, reciprocally, both to the empathetically aroused piety of the beholder and to the mercy of the Redeemer.[1] The exploration of empathy-inducing effects was from the beginning a constitutive part of the image's meaning and function, and this in turn encouraged its remarkably free and open-ended development. From the original Byzantine bust formula, it was expanded throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe by the inclusion of additional figures and gestures, and by the introduction of inventive devices of pictorial staging.

One adaptation was to make the image of the Man of Sorrows central to the legend of the Mass of the saintly Pope Gregory the Great. According to the legend, Christ appeared on the altar of St. Gregory in response to his prayer for a sign to convince an unbeliever of the truth of the Eucharist, that is, the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine consecrated at mass. Despite the fact that it was a relatively recent import, the icon in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was soon claimed to be the image originally commissioned by St. Gregory in commemoration of the event. On the basis of this legend, huge indulgences (measured in years taken off of time to be spent in Purgatory after a person’s death) were attached to the Man of Sorrows image in the late Middle Ages: In the fourteenth century seven Pater nosters, seven Ave Marias and seven short prayers called the "prayers of St. Gregory"said in front of the imago pietatis obtained a true pardon of 6,000 years in Purgatory; by the fifteenth century the sum had been inflated to 46,000 years.

Fig. 2: Umbria, Man of Sorrows with Arma Christi and indulgence charter, circa 1475, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Tarker / Bridgeman Images

An intermediate stage in this inflationary process is represented by a highly informative later-fifteenth-century Umbrian panel of the Man of Sorrows in Cologne, whose inscription renders the prayers of Saint Gregory and explains that the 14,000 years of true pardon traditionally accorded to worshippers who say the right prayers before this image has since been increased to 27,036 years (fig. 2).[2] The prayers of Gregory focus on the humiliations of the body of Jesus, focusing on several of the instruments and signs of Christ’s Passion shown in the image, namely the cross, the crown of thorns, the wounds, the sepulcher, the winding sheet, and the unguent for the body—praying that each be an “instrument of my salvation”—remedio delanima mia. These and other instruments are shown arrayed around the body of Jesus like emblems on an ensign—an image type known as the Arma Christi or “coat of arms of Christ.”

Botticelli’s painting reproposes the Man of Sorrows type while transforming it in almost every way. His Christ is not sleeping in death but awake and beseeching, and the instruments of the Passion are—uniquely in this tradition—arrayed into an angelic dance around his head. Only a few instruments are shown, and two of the angels disappear behind his head. Which instruments might they be carrying? Could they be the cane used to install the crown and the hammer used to drive the nails? Botticelli is adapting and mobilizing a stock of images already present in the viewer’s imagination.

Fig. 3. Fra Angelico, Suffering Christ, ca. 1420, Santa Maria del Soccorso, Livorno

Closer to Botticelli than any of these—in tone if not in all the details of the iconography—is the extraordinary icon by Fra Angelico in Livorno, showing a bust of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and the red-purple tunic, both placed on him in mockery of his supposed kingship (fig. 3). Everything in the image suggests we are looking at a close-up of this specific episode, with a suffering Jesus looking out of the picture at us, his mouth hanging open and his eyes shot deep red, as if to ask: are you among my unbelieving mockers or do you see the cosmic irony in the fact that the creator of the world is being degraded as a mock king? An unwaveringly orthodox painter, Angelico lets the elements in gold tell the Christian truth—the halo proclaiming him, in abbreviated Greek, Ihesos Christos, Jesus the Anointed One, and the inscription on the collar of his tunic making clear exactly where he stands in the hierarchy of rulership: REX REGUM, D[OMI]N[U]S D[OMI]NANTI[UM], King of Kings, Lord of Lords. The image lives from the contrast between the red of the drooping eyes and splattered blood and the unanswerable proclamations inscribed in the gold.

Botticelli was a less settled artistic mind than Angelico, especially towards the end of his life. In place of Angelico’s absolute contrast of humiliation and exaltation, Botticelli opts for a merging of states where vulnerability anoints transcendence. The eyes are less bloodshot, the blood on the face more muted, and the expression liquescent, its piteous appeal settling into infinite knowing. Reflected lights from somewhere in the world glisten in the eyes, suggesting portals. The sky-diving angels, neither flesh, nor vapor, nor stone, seem unsure of how to make these instruments into symbols—an idea Michelangelo might well have picked up on for his Last Judgment.

And on the collar is an inscription in need of completion: …ISTO IESU NAZARENO R…, from which we can extrapolate [Chr]isto Iesu Nazareno R[ege (or Regi) Iudeorum]. These are words drawn from the titulus placed above the cross, which identified him as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum or INRI, as we see on the titulus shown among the instruments of the Passion in fig. 2), again words meant in mockery reclaimed by Christians as ironic truth. Tablets nailed to the cross above crucified criminals were there to announce their crimes, and the crime of Jesus was to have claimed to be king of the Jews. But there is ambiguity in putting just those words above the body. In John 19:21-22 we read that the Jewish priests complained, "Do not write King of the Jews, but that he said: 'I am the King of the Jews'. Pilate responded, ‘What I have written, I have written (quod scripsi, scripsi)’.” Some Christian theologians ascribed prophetic inspiration to Pilate for insisting that the words resonate free of their intended context.

Botticelli makes it possible to recognize this identifier on the collar, but not in the ontological affirmative of Angelico’s complete nominatives—Rex, Dominus—or the title proclaimed in the titulus itself. Instead, we have a partial title inflected by contingency by being in either the dative or ablative case: …isto Iesu Nazareno R…. It could read, “For Christ Jesus the Nazarene, King…” Or it could be, “Through (or By) Christ Jesus the Nazarene King…” The idea of an inscription proclaiming that something is for Jesus is confusing: what is for Jesus? But the ablative reading is clear and theologically sound, so perhaps we’re invited to make it: through Jesus—through his having become human and suffered as a human—we are reconciled to God. (And thus we become for God, recuperating the dative, perhaps?). This image shows instruments of the Passion clustering around the central instrument, which is Jesus himself. Yet he is not like those other implements—ropes, column, lance, cross, etc.. Their job is done and part of history, whereas he will continue gazing out, persisting in the ablative so long as the world and time go on and he might be seen for what he is.

[1] H. Belting, Das Bild und sein Publikum im Mittelalter: Form und Funktion früher Bildtafeln der Passion, Berlin Mann 1981, pp. 281-288.

[2] "Signore yhu xpo io te adoro in croce pendente. Et la corona de spine in capo portante. Io te prego che la tua croce me libere da langelo percotente. O signore yhu xpo io te adoro in croce piagato. De fele et aceto abeverato. Et si ti prego che le tuoe piaghe sieno remedio delanima mia. O signore yhu xpo io te adoro nel sepolcro posto nel lenzaolo colonguento ingulupato et a te prego che la tua morte sia remedio de lanima mia.
Sancto Gregorio essendo papa et dicendo la messa glaparve el nostro signore yhu xpo in forma de piatate onde vedendolo sancto gregorio Jo mosso apiatate et devotione et si fece questa oratione a sua reverentia. Et si a concesso ad omne persona confessa et contrita che le dira inanse ala piatate cum cinque pater nostri et cinque ave maria avera quatordece milia anni di vera indulgentia. Et molti altri pape anno agionto intanto che suma in tucto vintasette milia anni et trenta sei de vera indulgentia."

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