By Dennis Raverty
At first glance, the Franciscan crucifix at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in New York City looks like a traditional Byzantine-style Eastern Orthodox icon. However, Francis of Assisi, beloved as he is among Western Christians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic alike, is not considered a saint by the Eastern Orthodox churches. So when icon writer Zachary Roesemann was commissioned to paint a Franciscan cross in a traditional manner, the artist faced the challenge of how to adapt the conservative style of icon painting to this non-traditional subject matter.
The impressive crucifix that resulted incorporates a distinctly Franciscan view of the body, seen not only as a site of sin, vice, and temptation, but also as a vessel of the human spirit created in the image of God. Even though that image has been tarnished by sin, it nonetheless reflects the image of God lying dormant within each of us. The figures represented in this crucifix are more fully embodied than in Eastern iconographic traditions, with substantial gravitas as well as grace, and representing physical, three-dimensional substance.
It was a painted, Romanesque-style cross that allegedly spoke to Francis; he had found it in the ruins of an abandoned chapel. Its figure of Christ famously told him, “Rebuild my Church.” The San Damiano Crucifix, as this work is known, is still preserved in the Church of Santa Chiara in Assisi.
Roesemann’s crucifix resembles the San Damiano Crucifix in certain respects: Christ is not suffering but is serene, almost floating over the cross rather than being suspended from it; his arms seem to open as if in a wide, welcoming gesture of embrace. In the San Damiano cross, the body is more schematic, two-dimensional and weightless. Roesemann’s corpus has more substantiality and gravitas, and the body is idealized in a more classical manner, closer to early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico than to anything Byzantine or Romanesque. (It is interesting to note how many stories in the life of Francis involve the saint’s unashamed nakedness.)
The figures of Mary and Saint John on the sides of Roesemann’s cross are closely modeled after Byzantine prototypes, their hand gestures eloquently signifying traditional representations of mourning. But these figures are softer than the more rigid Byzantine style evident in the figure of Christ. This is most apparent in the garments, which are more supple and curvilinear, more revealing of the three-dimensional bodies within than the San Damiano, in which garments are rendered in stiff geometric patterns that almost seem independent of the bodies underneath.
The face of Jesus in Roesemann’s icon is more naturalistic, less abstracted than the Romanesque cross that in part inspired it. The enlarged eyes of the San Damiano Christ seem to look up and gaze toward heaven, as if interceding with the Father on our behalf. Roesemann’s Christ, on the other hand, looks directly at the observer with an expression of calm acceptance, yet with a seriousness and perhaps even a slight sense of unease, as if the viewer has told him something that troubles him. He seems above all to listen intently with compassionate yet sober deliberation to the problems and entreaties of the faithful who confide in him. This is an icon that seems to invite these kinds of personal disclosures, a very intimate, prayerful, almost “confessional” crucifix.
The sense of trust that makes this kind of relationship between the viewer and the image possible is at least partly the result of the artist’s rendering of the face, a softening of features, a greater naturalism, already evident in the treatment of the garments. Roesemann avoids the often stern and judgmental expression found on the faces of so many icons, and this helps create a sense of familiarity and tenderness (although his Christ is not totally without judgment).
At the base of the cross is a diminutive Saint Francis kissing the wounds in the feet of Christ. His body reveals the same marks as Jesus on his hands, feet and side, the miraculous stigmata or sign of his identification with Christ. So close was this identification that some called the saint the Alter Christus, or “Other Christ.” The implication in this was clear: that the saint manifested in his own person the interior Christ potential to such a degree that Francis became a sort of shining mirror of Christ, embodying the Logos by partaking in and reflecting his uncreated light.
Beneath the cross, a crack opens in the earth to reveal the skull of Adam, a traditional motif that serves as a reminder of human mortality. The body, it seems to suggest, despite all its glory, is ultimately transitory. The devout viewer, while inspired by the idealized corpus of the represented Christ to live a more robust, fully embodied existence, is nonetheless made aware of human limitations and fragility.
Above the cross is a six-winged seraph derived from a fresco in the Hagia Sophia, referencing to a vision Saint Francis experienced near the end of his life, often depicted in art. Here the vision is alluded to obliquely, reduced in size like Mary and John and even Francis, subordinated so that nothing may detract from the concerned and compassionate gaze of the fully human yet glorified body of Christ.
Dr. Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries.