April 18, 2011
This painting by artist Leandro Bassano titled the Dead Christ with Angels is part of a display at New York's Museum of Biblical Art depicting the Man of Sorrows through eight centuries.


This painting by artist Leandro Bassano titled the Dead Christ with Angels is part of a display at New York's Museum of Biblical Art depicting the Man of Sorrows through eight centuries.


NEW YORK — The graphic depiction of Jesus as the suffering Man of Sorrows is not a crowd pleaser but is a crowd draw, according to a Jesuit art historian.

"No one would dispute the importance of Christ's sacrificial death in Christian theology, but we are less inclined today to decorate our living rooms with bloody representations of him," said Jesuit Father Gregory Waldrop.

Waldrop, assistant professor of art history at Fordham University in New York, moderated a recent panel discussion on the Man of Sorrows as part of a symposium organized in conjunction with a new exhibit at New York's Museum of Biblical Art.

But the Man of Sorrows still resonates artistically and religiously, he said. "It continues to attract and provoke, responding to current conditions of anguish, loss and deprivation in the world, and showing up in contemporary songs, popular images and even as a theme in artworks by high-profile, emphatically secular contemporary artists."

The Man of Sorrows, a haunting image of Jesus upright, dead but not resurrected, swept Venice in the 13th century and continues to fascinate and puzzle biblical scholars and art historians.

The exhibit, Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese, depicting the Man of Sorrows in various media through eight centuries, runs through June 12 at the museum in Manhattan.

The Man of Sorrows is based on Isaiah's prophecy that the redeemer will be a man of suffering, spurned and avoided by men and accustomed to infirmity.

The exhibit describes the figure as "neither nailed to the cross nor part of the Gospel stories of crucifixion and resurrection, yet he is miraculously upright and suspended between earthly death and eternal life."

The image was interpreted by master artists in Venice, including Carlo Crivelli, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. It was used in churches to visualize the mystery of the Eucharist and on tombs to describe the promise of the Resurrection. The theme was also explored by Paul Cezanne, Albrecht Durer and Edouard Manet, whose works are also included in the exhibit.


Ena Heller, executive director of the museum, told Catholic News Service that the Man of Sorrows was used in liturgical settings, private devotions and civic celebrations.

The exhibit illustrates the nonlinear trajectory of biblical art, where images reflect the different cultural contexts in which they are found, she said.

Passion in Venice includes 62 pieces from 37 museums and private collections. The newest piece is a framed digital display by Bill Viola of a secular man whose face writhes in silent anguish.

Catherine Puglisi, professor of art history at Rutgers University and co-curator of the exhibit, said the Man of Sorrows and the Pieta are two distinct subjects in art that are not interchangeable. The upright Man of Sorrows "shifts the balance from temporal to immortal.

Puglisi said early images of the Man of Sorrows reflect the need for deep spirituality in the late mediaeval period, where people were beset by plague, famine, war and other disasters. Its appearance on tombs represented precious hope for an afterlife to people tormented in their temporal lives.

Biblical scholar John Sawyer, professor emeritus at two British universities, traced the history of the interpretation of the Man of Sorrows in biblical tradition.

Both Jews and Christians see it as a testament to the transformation of a community from suffering and weakness into exaltation and empowerment, Sawyer said. The image itself is an extraordinary description of the excruciating suffering of Christ, in which his sorrow seems to originate in physical pain.

Franciscan Father Xavier John Seubert, professor of art and theology at St. Bonaventure University, said the image of the Man of Sorrows captures the reality of redemption. It depicts the foundational sacramental event. In fact, the Eucharist and the Man of Sorrows are merged and not merely juxtaposed.

Seubert said, "Art can articulate what theologians have not come to yet."


In a keynote address, Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, described the progression of the Man of Sorrows from a devotional image to a contemporary expression of protest against the suffering of marginalized peoples.

"In our own time, political theologians have criticized the tradition of art commonly found in Latin America depicting the suffering of Christ, because it fosters passivity among the poor," he said.

But liberation theologians, such as Jesuit Father Jon Sobrino, take the theme of the crucified Christ and used it to signify the suffering of a "crucified" people.

Cunningham said in that context, the Man of Sorrows becomes a prophetic image, crying out for the poor against oppression. The image, he said, has an "afterlife" in unexpected places, including as a tattoo on the side of soccer star David Beckham's body. Beckham described it as a memorial to his late Jewish grandfather, Cunningham said.