The Craftsman’s Christ

Detail of a Crucifixion altar panel  in St.-Sulpitiuskerk, Diest, Vlaams-Brabant (manipulated).

This is a scene by an unknown 16th-century artist, probably Flemish, at a time when artisanal effort was admired not just for the perfection of the end-product but for the artisan’s closely-guarded knowledge of materials. Wood, stone, minerals, plant extracts, gold-work, smelting etc. No-one knew more than the craftsman about the secrets of the very matter God created. Here, in an image manipulated to highlight the pose, a sculptor in an early Renaissance workshop seems to pay close attention to what he’s doing at his table, putting the finishing touches on an arm of Christ. With attention focused on his work, marble chips fly from the point of his chisel like sparks from an anvil. Well, not quite….

L: Crucifixion, altar panel in St.-Sulpitiuskerk, Diest.
R: Detail of above image.

That’s blood spurting from Christ’s hand as he hammers a nail through it. Christ’s hand is being made by the artist’s hand, a self-reflection. Like Rembrandt in his Raising of the Cross (c.1633), this unknown artist crucifies Christ. Art, like scripture read esoterically, is allegory and few allegories in art have been used more often than the Crucifixion. The Cross itself thus became art's icon. In painting it symbolized (and still does) the perfection of art because, in esoteric Christianity, Christ on the Cross reflects the divinity of the human mind and the mental struggle (the Passion) that all spiritual seekers must go through, not only artists. That's why those muscled assistants helping to erect the Cross are generally in contemporary dress. They represent workers in the studio, struggling to turn their own chaotic minds (as Christ's crucifiers) into rational and divine ones (Christ). In the image above the Cross is horizontal making its wooden surface resemble a table-top. The real figures in the painting (i.e. the painted ones) are the swooning Virgin and her saintly helpmates, normally in biblical dress. It is an intentional "mistake" and not ambiguous. The normal explanation for this common anachronism and its inconsistency is that contemporary fashions helped contemporary viewers imagine themselves in the scene. That’s partly true but clearly wrong: the fashions would soon be out-of-date, the viewers dead. Nevertheless, it seems an acceptable, if shallow, explanation for the public and patron. Meaning in art, though, is not only more meaningful than that but always has a longer life too. It must be as true today as it was when it was made. Otherwise, it is not Truth in its proper meaning because Truth never changes. John Keats was right to say that Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. Remarkably, without such meaning, the world would not recognize a great work of art as beautiful even if no-one but artists could perceive its meaning. That's the true miracle. In fact, scholars like Erwin Panofsky have sometimes wondered how Renaissance artists, depicting optical reality for the first time or so he thought, were still able to imbue their pictures with meaning. In essence: how do you put meaning in an ordinary photograph? Art experts have proposed many answers leading to many different methodologies but almost all are based on the same paradigm and the same misunderstanding: that Old Master art is like a view through a window. Indeed the belief that the frame is a window is still so strongly held that many refuse to believe that art is made from visual illusions. Yet as above, and like metaphor in literature, it is the very life-blood of painting and sculpture, the source of meaning in art and thus, when perceived correctly, of true aesthetic satisfaction.

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