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The Cross


Christ Bearing the Cross with a Dominican Friar, Barna da Siena ca. 1350-60


It's pretty obvious. There is no way that two figures can be of drastically different sizes and exist in the same picture plane, right? Something must be wrong, or maybe the art is once again speaking a different language than we normally do. (Of course, it is; why would I think differently?)

I often use this work from the Frick Museum on New York's Fifth Avenue in my design class to teach my students about hierarchical scale. As I defined to my son Ian years ago, scale is the relative size of an object when compared to a similar one. For example, Uncle James's Ford truck is considerably larger than Ian's Tonka truck, but they are still trucks. (It is a sweet story when he was two or three years old.) The two figures in this austere painting appear to have correct human proportions. So when we isolate the kneeling figure from its context he seems to be of normal size. Additionally, and by comparison to the surrounding landscape, the Christ figure is not that large; however, when we compare the Dominican Friar to Christ something seems wrong. It's not that the Dominican Friar is small, but the Christ figure is HUGE. And maybe that is the point. It's not the natural world we need to consider but a figurative world; it's not a Greek, rational view of the human life but a Hebrew, symbolic view. In Proto-Renaissance art, hierarchical scale suggests the bigger the figure, the more important he or she is. Make no doubt, Christ is the focus of this painting, as he should be.

While our theology teaches us of the weightiness of the cross, and the Gospels narrate the burden of Christ's journey to Golgatha, Christians tend to look on his death as a magnanimous act of sacrificial love. By doing this, we sometimes overlook the emotional expense of human life. Here, in this heavy image, I see something else that seems so true to the journey on that eventful Friday. I look at the dead cargo created by the kneeling clergyman. His added weight is representative of the weight of so many others. Like a ball and chain attached around his ankles, or like the tug of a small child to her mother's dress, it seems Jesus is saying, "I'll add your burden to mine; I'll carry you too." And so on that road to the cross, Jesus bore the weight of the world because Christ alone can hold the whole world in his hands.

Jeffrey Morton, 04.08.2020

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