Il-Vari Tal-Ġimgħa L-Kbira F'Malta
Malta's Outstanding Crucifixes
by John Azzopardi-Vella
The coming of Easter, the greatest of all feasts for Christians, makes us look one more time at the crucifixes in our churches. I might say that we cannot look too often at these holy images if we care to let out minds and eyes be energized by the massive religious and artistic message that they convey. The Catholic church bas always promoted strongly artistic expression as a means of coming closer to our creator. This strategy has paid off as can be seen by the millions who visit ‘The Sistina’.
Michelangelo’s executions have proved to be more religious than artistic in their results. His art makes us meditate on the uncertain fate of humankind and to seek solace in the promise of eternal life made to us by Christ, the man and God who redeemed us on the cross. Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ crucified reaches its apex of perfection when he presented his crucifixion drawings to Vittoria Colonna about 1540. That is the time when he started to move from his administration of classical antiquity, and towards a mannerist way of looking at things. He opted then an extreme consciousness of style for its own sake, a passion which united cold narcissism with an elaborate painterly skill.
A perfect high quality reflection of this artistic philosophy is to be found in Polidoro da Caravaggio’s (not to be confused with our Michelangelo Caravaggio) crucifix in Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta (pictured below right). Polidoro belongs to the Roman group of highly intellectual mannerist artists. He later (1527) introduced his style to Naples. His St John’s Co-Cathedral crucifixion is a perfect expression of the above-mentioned outlook and style, where Christ hangs on the cross displaying not much effort in bearing his recent savage beatings.
We are not disturbed with feelings of horror when we contemplate this crucifix. We are helped by the painter’s transformative skill to calmly, meditate.
Polidoro’s achievement is a great contrast to the wonderful baroque crucifix group attributed by some to the famous Algardi. This is to be seen in Saint John’s on the opposite side to the main Co-Cathedral entrance (pictured left). The Algardi Christ is narcissistic but in contrast to the Polidoro one it is not coldly narcissistic explosively baroque in its effect.
The two crucifixes can be described as narcissistic for Christ is portrayed in them as ‘the lamb led to the slaughter’ of the Gospel. Christ seems to have been nailed to the cross without much of a struggle. He displays incolumnity as proof of divinity.
When we contemplate the biblical phrase ‘lamb led to the slaughter’ these two crucifixes acquire a tremendous religious physiological significance. Christ is there, not a common man who has suffered inhuman beatings and been nailed to the cross, but he is actually conquering death and becoming our saviour by triumphing with a tangible display of narcissism over the savagery of evil men. Christ is narcissistic because he has preserved his physical integrity. Christ is a triumphant Christ in these St John’s crucifixes, who would be raised from the dead in three days with a body already healed of all his experienced brutal lashings. Lashings do not seem to infringe on the Polidoro and the Algardi crucified Christ.
The simple contrasting philosophy of these two masterpieces with that of the celebrated Mathias Grunewald crucifixion (1515) cannot be greater , where there is nothing to suggest immediately, or even remotely that Christ is God besides being man. This is no hint of an imminent blazing resurrection.
Grunewald’s Christ (pictured right) has a lash-spotted body with a yellowish-green of decay. His mouth gapes with an exhaustion beyond recovery. His fingers twist upwards from the sagging crossbar on which His hands are nailed. There is blood glistening at the tips of His clubbed and claw-like feet.
Grunewald displays pathos deeply engrained in horror. The Polidoro and the Algardi crucifixes inspire pathos, and Polidoro much more so. They do not disturb our mind with horrific feelings which are further aggravated by surrealist painterly techniques.
The expressions of Saint John, Mary Magdalene, and that of an ashen Virgin in the Grunewald picture are certainly disturbing to average emotions. Polidoro and Algardi do not disturb, but soothe our feelings and convey a message of triumph over death.
Information as displayed in St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta :
"This crucifix was painted by Caravaggio, but a different one to the Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio who was in Malta at the time of the Knights. It was painted by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio (1492-1543) around the 1530s. It was successfully restored on behalf of the Museo di Capodimonte by Bruno Arciprete.
It once hung on the right wall of the Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos. Its new position is more accessible to the public. The artist is important historically and remembered as one of Raphael's assistants as well as a competent innovator in his own right."
"The Crucifixion group of the Golgotha as it is sometimes called arrived at St John’s Co-Cathedral in 1653. It was not made specifically for St. John’s and its earlier provenance is as yet unknown. The sculptural group was the gift of Commander Fra Felicaja.
The sculptor is unknown, yet its artistic style and highly refined qualities make it very close to the work of Alessandro Algardi. Algardi was one of the leading artists of the seventeenth century receiving commissions from the Pope and his works are found in the Vatican and other important churches in Rome and throughout Italy.
The group consists of three large wooden statues, the Crucifix, the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist and are at present in the passageway that leads to the sacristy of St. John’s. Originally they were displayed in the Oratory dedicated to the Beheading of St. John and this suggests the importance this sculptural group was given by the Grand Master. The statues are rendered in white gesso and are larger than life-size. The fine chiselling and impressive plasticity in the rendition of the anatomy reveals the work of an expert hand."