Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


The Gero Crucifix

April 3rd, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our Lenten series on crosses and crucifixion images.

Previously here.

This crucifix is 6’2” in height and is the first monumental sculpture of the crucified Christ still in existence. Made of wood and painted, it was commissioned in 970 by Gero, Archbishop of Cologne, Germany, for his cathedral.

When the Gero image was carved, the controversies over the use of religious images (the iconoclastic crisis) had still not subsided and large sculpture-in-the-round images of Christ, Mary and the saints would have been considered as encouraging idolatry.  The veneration of relics, however, enjoyed a renewed popularity and energy in northern Europe where the Gero cross was made. The relics were often contained and displayed in table-top sized reliquaries that had cavities for holding them. These reliquaries were often small sculpted or cast figures, no more than a foot or two in height, at most.

Crucifixes too became popular objects in early German sculpture and, like reliquaries, were usually small and cast in bronze.  The Gero Crucifix, therefore, must have been something of a sensation when it was created and put on display for the first time in the cathedral.

Upper Cover of the Lindau Gospel Book ca. 875

In addition to the sensationalism of its size must have been the image’s realistic treatment of the crucified Christ. Prior to this time in Christian art, Crucifixion icons and illustrations in books depicted a type of crucified Christ that suggested the dual natures of Christ: the crucified body, his humanity; his non-suffering serene expression, his divinity (left). But, in the Gero Crucifix, we see a very human Christ who actually hangs upon the cross, his body sagging from dead weight.  The muscles and skin are stretched from the shoulders across the chest. The stomach bulges out from the weight of the torso pressing down from above. The eyes of Christ are closed in death and blood streams down across His forehead. The lips are contorted and the mouth at the corners hangs down. Between the bottom lip and the chin a deep cup indicates that the head fell down onto the chest at the moment of death. This is not a serene image.

Why the change from the traditional dogmatic image of Christ to a totally human one? Some would say that mysticism prevalent in the early middle ages resulted in an intense spirituality that was expressed through human emotions. The Gero Crucifix depicted a suffering Christ whose agony paralleled the spirit of the times. In other words, this was an image with which people could emotionally identify because it seemed to sum up their own lives.

The Gero Crucifix inaugurated in Christian art -alongside the dogmatic tradition- a tradition of realistic portrayals of Christ’s crucifixion. It would reach its most powerful expression in the exaggerated realism of the Crucifixion panel of the Isenheim Altarpiece.

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One Response to “The Gero Crucifix”

  1. The Gero crucifix is awe inspiring in relating how Christ took on our humanity and suffered for our sins. This article with photograph is very befitting for the Lenten Season. Thank you for posting it.

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