As morbid as this may sound, one of the main functions of the Catholic Church is to teach us how to die. Death is the common lot of man—the great democratizing element in our lives. The only question that remains is whether or not it will be a good death. A good death is one that ushers us willingly and without remorse from the world we know into one that we comprehend only vaguely, as “through a glass darkly.” A good death is a death to attachment to objects or vices. A good death embraces its own suffering as purgation, fears not the coming judgment, and looks boldly forward to the promises of heaven and eternal bliss. A good death is a Christ-like death.
The spiritual function of sacred art has always provided a parallel to the Church’s teachings. Sacred art illuminates our understanding of doctrine and tradition by providing a tangible metaphor. It is one thing to affirm that Jesus Christ died for our sins, but it is quite another thing to experience and witness that death, albeit second hand, through the vividness of a sculpture or painting. As Catholics, when we interact with great works of art, we should be both intellectually and emotionally aware, responding with wonder to the great mysteries of our Faith made tangible.
Through His crucifixion, Jesus teaches His Church the lesson of a good death. This is true of the artistic depiction of His sacrifice. Every time we enter a Catholic church, we are thrust into confrontation with the image of Our God hanging naked and abused on a cross of wood. This is the great truth of our religion, the core of our creed. It is right that this image forms the central focus point of our churches, for by the contemplation of this image we have the opportunity to model our behavior in imitation of Christ Jesus and prepare for eternity.
Any artistic interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion will encourage the contemplation of Our Lord’s purity, His poverty, and His suffering. We will take for our example the wooden polychrome corpus attributed to a young Michelangelo Buonarroti in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, Florence. According to belief, it was carved in the year 1492 when Michelangelo was 17 years of age and living as a guest at the Augustinian Priory of Santo Spirito.
The first characteristics evoked by this sixty-inch corpus are the innocence, purity, and virginal tenderness of the body of Christ. The eye rejoices in the sensuality of form and lingers over the subtle carving of flesh, bone, and tendon. This is not the commanding and physically powerful Jesus of Michelangelo’s mature work. It is almost a crucifixion of the Infant Jesus; a telescoping of the creed, portraying in one word the truth that Christ was born, has died, and will come again.
The total nudity of Jesus in this depiction is accurate both to the Gospel accounts and to historical Roman practice, but more importantly this nakedness can be interpreted as a symbol of absolute poverty. We may forget from time to time that at the heart of Christ’s teaching is the radical rejection of the things of this world and the embrasure of a loving, generous poverty. The radical poverty preached in the Gospels is made manifest, in our Lord’s want of clothing at the hour of His death. He is the lily who neither toils nor spins, yet is more radiant in His nakedness than Solomon in all of his finery.
The act of physically beholding the sculpture then shifts to an intellectual contemplation, a devotional exercise. It is then that the subtle distress and restrained agony evinced by the sculpture comes to life. The perfect symmetry of the arms and chest provide a stable center to the composition and gives force to the contrast as the head shifts in one direction and the lower body in another. There is just enough tension between the ribcage and the pelvis to cause a twinge in one’s own abdomen. The overlapping position of the legs carries our perturbation down to the feet, one placed on top of another and pierced by a single nail. Here all the weight of the body is concentrated in silent anguish.
Turning ultimately to the visage of Our Lord gives order and meaning to these observations and the feelings that have been elicited through this work of art. The face of Christ in this sculpture seems to accept the torment willingly and without regret. It is a portrait of pure love and devotion, inviting us to follow and take up our own crosses with similar countenances. The mind of Our Savior is already experiencing the bliss of heaven, and like the good thief, we need only believe in Him and follow Him in order to share in that bliss.
In my own career as an artist, people often ask me when this or that sculpture will be finished. My answer tends to be something playfully smug like, “it’s done when I say it’s done.” The real answer, however, is that no work of art is ever really finished. This is the idea of the eternal potentiality of the artistic object. It might always be more than it is at any given moment depending on who is experiencing the work of art. A great theologian will draw out more intellectual depth from Michelangelo’s corpus, and a poet will experience the sculpture with more empathy and awe. The sculpture will continue to live and breathe in the eyes of its beholders until the last trumpet is sounded and it is thrown away like the straw that it is in comparison to the eternal reality of its Subject.
This should also be our attitude in contemplating heavenly matters. At a certain point, the security guards of Santo Spirito will invite you to leave the sacristy where Michelangelo’s crucifix is displayed; but this should not stop the mind from contemplating this very crucifix for the rest of one’s life. There is always more to see—even in the mind’s eye—more facets of the truth to be uncovered. I would encourage all Catholics to maintain little sanctuaries of the mind where this kind of contemplation may occur. It may be a work of art like this one that we keep always available for veneration, or it may be a text or a particular song as well. If we think of our lives as a journey towards a good death, we should also remember that every pilgrim needs a shrine to help him along the way to the final Shrine.