How are we to characterize this painted crucifix from the 13th century? Is it a Byzantine icon or an Italian religious painting? Is it medieval or Renaissance? Art historians tell us that it is neither wholly one or the other, but a work in transition, a mixture of old and new, the creation of an Italo-Byzantine, proto-Italian Renaissance artist. Transitional forms in art can be as confusing as they are intriguing. Combining features proper to successive eras of art, they exhibit traits inherited from their parentage even while they hint at the forms their artistic descendants will come to adopt. They are the “missing links” in artistic evolution. Studying them can throw useful light on the distinctive characteristics of the bracketing generations—but only in retrospect, when you actually know something about what came before and what followed after. Otherwise—at the time of their creation, say, or when seen in isolation—these intermediate objects can look like awkward adolescents, immature and ungainly. Even later, they may be praised as visionary creations that made a courageous break with the past as often as they are condemned for falling short of the mark or abandoning sound principles.
The artist, Cimabue (ca. 1240-1302), was indeed schooled in the Byzantine style of icon painting, which, in his day had dominated Italian art for centuries. But he would be hailed the “savior of art” because he began to disentangle art from the strictures of the old tradition and fostered the “modern,” naturalistic style that reached maturity in the Renaissance.
Now in the church of San Domenico in Arezzo, and recently restored, this painted cross belongs to a type that was common up and down Italy beginning about the 10th century. In their basic form, these crosses show the crucified Lord, attended by John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary on side panels or at the end of the arms. The side panels of the earlier, more elaborate versions were thick with additional disciples or saints, weeping angels, and other characters or episodes from the life and Passion of Christ. The darkened sun and moon could make an appearance, as could the resurrected Jesus, who might be seen gazing down in benediction from a medallion (round to symbolize heaven) mounted at the top of the cross. Later specimens like this one tend toward simplicity: The clutter of imagery on the side panels is done away with, replaced with a carpet of decorative patterning, often of a vaguely harlequin design.
The Byzantine world had a distaste for sculptural forms, but these life-sized and elaborately shaped objects, often with projecting halos or supports for Jesus’ feet, in effect waver between flat painting and true “in-the-round” sculpture, a further demonstration of their borderline status. In practice, such crucifixes were hung in the nave of the church opposite representations of Christ in judgment; their shape and accessory images of the saints give them a more than passing similarity to the cruciform plan and side chapels of the typical medieval church building.
In the early years of Christianity, of course, depictions of Christ on the cross were almost nonexistent; it was still too shameful and dangerous a subject to address openly. When they did begin to appear, in painted or mosaic form, or in small carved ivory panels, toward the middle of the first millennium, they almost invariably exhibit the Christus Triumphans, not the Christus Patiens: Jesus’ divine victory over death could be contemplated, but not his tortured humanity. For long centuries, no grimace of sorrow or pain would mar the serene—or sometimes severe—face of the Savior on the cross. He would stand, as it were, not hang, in front of it, virtually unbloodied, head up, eyes open, arms horizontal, palms out, with no sense of weight encumbering his figure; the cherished San Damiano Cross is a prime example of this type.
Naturally, the artistic style varied with the geography. Northern Europe had its own Celtic and Germanic traditions. On the Italian peninsula, the Greek iconographic system, brought over from nearby Byzantium (thanks in part to an influx of icon painters fleeing iconoclastic persecution in the seventh and eighth centuries), was entrenched and pervasive—though of no high order of attainment by the turn of the millennium. The imported artists were often hardly more accomplished than the locals, whose training suffered in the troubled atmosphere of medieval Italy. Indeed, in the opinion of certain later critics, especially classicists of the Renaissance (or of any age), Italian painting was at this time in a deplorable state of ineptitude. Certainly, every trace of the Greco-Roman sophistication so admired by them was long vanished, replaced with an almost entirely contrary aesthetic. For such critics, no adjective is too negative to condemn Italo-Byzantine painting: It is deformed, feeble, barbaric, unimaginative, disagreeable, unnatural, graceless, and so on.
Changes in Attitude
Beginning in the 11th century, the reverent delicacy of the first millennium and the aesthetic dominance of the Byzantine style did in fact come under increasing pressure to give way. More and more, the sufferings of Jesus, his physical humanity, and sympathetic expressions of emotion were thought to be suitable subjects of art. Responsible for this changing attitude to some considerable degree was the humanizing influence of Franciscan spirituality, which encouraged the faithful to identify personally with the Passion of Christ, and provided new themes for artists in the life of the saint himself. The abstract detachment and stereotyped content of the icon could not easily cope with the call for a more sentimental and realistic manner.
But change was slow and almost imperceptibly subtle through to the 13th century. A host of mostly forgotten masters introduced many separate alterations and adjustments, which Cimabue finally brought together in pieces like the San Domenico crucifix. Here these incremental modifications add up to something unmistakably different from earlier works like the San Damiano Cross, yet on the whole it remains a long way off from the mature productions of the 15th and 16th centuries, or even from what Cimabue’s towering student, Giotto, would accomplish only a few decades later.
Consequently, we see that the side icons of Mary and John still follow the outlines of their long-established models, and that the anatomy of Jesus’ figure remains unsystematic and schematized; nor do we quite get the sense that Jesus is hanging from the cross. But there is a greater sense of volume or roundedness in the forms than is seen in true icons (though not developed with genuine chiaroscuro, a later technique), and the dramatic curvature of the torso and legs, and the inclination of the head (both always to the right), the closed eyes, the mournful countenance, the graceful rhythm of the fingers, are all among the evolutionary steps leading to the Renaissance “revitalization” of art.
It’s All Relative
Or are they? With hindsight, aesthetic change looks logical and inevitable, but nothing is more unfair to art than the idea of “progress,” and nothing more artificial than the neat distinctions, categories, and epochs that historians devise in which to slot away artists and their work (no matter how convenient they might end up being). Cimabue knew nothing of Raphael, and his work should not be measured against a future standard. Of course, it is impossible to judge art without allowing for context (and taste), but to suspend a work of art halfway up the slope from predefined “imperfection” to “perfection,” making it a passing landmark on the road to something higher, besides being inherently prejudicial, is to rob it of its unique worth and identity.
Consider too that what is evolutionary progress to one is regression—or even revolutionary error—to another. Byzantine and Orthodox critics, in contrast to the classicists alluded to earlier, took a dim view of the kind of naturalism Cimabue and the Italians pioneered. The new art was for them a scandalous betrayal of sacred tradition, a symptom of recrudescent paganism precisely as it became more Greco-Roman, and unworthy of service to the Church. It impressed them as profane, sensual, and in a rather different sense of the word, graceless.
Change really is inevitable, of course, not because art changes, but because we do. In time, everything that was new grows old, and we look around for the next big thing. In a well-known passage from the Purgatorio, Dante observed that “Cimabue thought to hold the field in painting; . . . now Giotto has the cry, so that the other’s fame is dim.” Even putatively static aesthetics like the Byzantine respond to fashions and altered tastes. But while human nature might explain and possibly predict the general course of stylistic history, art itself progresses toward no final aesthetic goal. There is no teleology of fashion, no perfect style waiting in the future at the pinnacle of artistic development, after which art will come to an end.
No End in Sight
Could we even begin to describe what such a terminal style would look like? Renaissance classicism? Gothic spirituality? We all have our ideas. Absolute realism is often advanced as the ultimate in art, but an art indistinguishable from nature would lack the vitality provided by the human soul and become an unnecessary exercise in duplication. (And it is as well to remember how Victor Frankenstein’s creature, intended to be beautiful, exposed the perils of taking imitative art to an extreme.) In contrast, modern art plumps for a “pure” art of abstracted color and form—a black square on a white background—completely unconcerned with imitation. But the logical conclusion of that dematerializing trajectory is conceptualism, that is, no art at all. As for beauty, it knows no style, because it must be instantiated in some particular form every time it would be seen.
Any stylistic ideal is found only in the individual object: Each work of art seeks its own aesthetic perfection, which ultimately does not depend on comparisons or notions of progress. Transitional or not, the San Domenico crucifix is complete in itself, and whatever fixed idea we may have of artistic perfection, there are infinite alternatives. Artists did not give up after Leonardo or Michelangelo, nor did composers give up after Mozart or writers after Shakespeare: They all found new perfections to pursue.
Art will never cease, because it lives on the inexhaustible and timeless perfection of the divine art. Like God, like Christianity, art has been declared dead more than once in the last century by souls lacking the imagination to engage with the infinite. But it, like God—like the cross of Christ—carries on, ever old, ever new.