Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Mystical Crucifixion with Our Mother the Church and St. Monica of Tagaste Bearing the Flaming Heart of her Son. Matthew Alderman, ink on paper, 11 x 17 inches, January 2006.

I do not know if the term Mystical Crucifixion has been used in art before now. I derived it from a parallelism with the Mystical Nativity of Flemish art, the iconography of which derives principally from the private revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden. Here, I use it to mean an image which, while not representing the historical reality of the Crucifixion nonetheless serves to shed light on its deeper ontological reality. I have tried to emphasize this difference by diverging from the historical titulus over the Cross, INRI, and replaced it with an abbreviated macaronic Latin-Greek inscription reading, "Jesus Christ the Nazarene, King of Glory," a variant on the inscription typically used on Byzantine crucifixes.

The cross is now transformed into a still-barren Edenic Tree of Life, the ultimate progenitor, legend has it, of the tree that the cross was cut from. Christ's crucifixion on the tree references numerous hymns and poetry that link these two icons of resurrection and life, as well as the concept that through Christ, all God's creation has been purified, that matter too can be a vehicle for God's plan. This concept is also expressed by another medieval borrowing, that of the weeping sun and moon shown overhead. All Nature cries out at Christ's death, and is remade by His resurrection. Even now, some plants have begun to spring up at the foot of the cross, overshadowing the skull of Golgotha, a punning reference often taken to refer to the skull of Adam, and by extension, the "old man" of sin put to death by Christ's sacrifice.

The barren tree is also intended to refer to "hintings" of Christ's crucifixion one finds throughout pre-Christian pagan cultures, perhaps through the quiet actions of Divine Providence. In particular, there is the World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, of Norse mythology. Oðin was said to have hung on it nine days, pierced with his own spear, in exchange for gaining wisdom and knowledge. Yggdrasil was said to rain honey on the world like the Heavens rained holy dew (Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant justum), as the Psalmist says. Incidentally, a late addition to Nordic myth--thought to be a deliberate borrowing from Christianity's belief in a new heaven and a new earth--has mankind being restored after the apocalyptic Ragnarök by a man and woman sheltered within the world ash and nourished on dew.

On a more personal note, the outlines of barren trees against the bright winter sky have always fascinated me, and remain embedded in my mind as a private symbol of the quiet and sometimes unsettling beauty of the Midwest. There are few things stranger than the contorted shapes of their branches, and yet hardly anyone bothers to notice them. They are symbols of the sublime and oft-forgotten weirdness of the everyday--and as a consequence, of God's providence.

The pose of the crucified Christ is derived from several medieval models. In particular, the Isenheim Altarpiece of Mathis Gothart, called Grünewald, was a prime influence. However, I wished to find a balance between the--justifiably shocking--reality of Grünewald's nightmare world, and the serenity and stoicism of other crucifixes, such as Nicholas Gerhaerts van Leyden's monumental funerary stone Crucifixus of 1467, another major influence. The heavy, thick contortions of the crown of thorns are largely derved from this model.

Two women stand below the cross. On Christ's right is a young woman, crowned, dress in rich robes. She holds a chalice that catches Christ's blood flowing from his side. She represents the Church, born from Christ's side on Calvary as Eve was drawm from the side of Adam, and it is on Calvary that their marriage is consummated. The chalice is the Grail, which legendarily was said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper, and also is appropriately associated here with the Church, Her feminine nature symbolized by that which contains holiness, that She, too, is a vessel of devotion as the Virgin is.

On Christ's left is St. Monica. There has been some debate as to the race of St. Augustine and St. Monica, and while we may never know the ethnic background of St. Augustine's father for certain, the name Monica, I have been told, is associated with the Berber tribesmen of North Africa. (This may or may not be true.) She is, as a consequence, depicted in the traditional costume of this proud people. She bears in one hand the flaming heart associated with her son, Augustine, and perhaps also appropriate for her, as well, manifesting the big-heartedness and ardurous trust in God's power that led her to continue to pray for her son long after he had drifted away from the Faith.

This work was created for a friend with a strong devotion to St. Monica, and thus the iconography expressed is more specific and personal than other works. However, given that much, if not all, of the religious art of medieval days still extant has a similarly personal edge in its allusions to the donors who sonsored such images and prayed before them, I hope that this piece's broader significance is nonetheless evident.

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