Devotion Engraved on the Heart

Art history professor Elliott Wise lectured on depictions of Christ in Renaissance devotional art for an Education Week series sponsored by the BYU Humanities Center.

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 23, 2017)—Because of the writings of historians Jacob Burckhardt and Giorgio Vasari, many scholars view the Renaissance as a time of secularization. Elliott Wise, however, disagrees. Wise, a contagiously cheerful assistant professor of art history at BYU, believes the Renaissance was a heyday of devotional art, which drew the viewer into the narrative of Christ’s life in a dramatic and powerful way. Through the viewing of devotional art, he said, Renaissance Christians could “mold and polish their souls” to make their hearts into an image of Christ, to “receive his image into their countenances” and experience “a mighty change of heart.”

Wise addressed the audience for his Education Week class, “You as the viewer could enter into the story and weep beside Christ, rejoice beside Christ, but more than anything else, devotional art was supposed to touch the very deepest and most sacred feelings of your heart.” He then displayed an image of a group of grotesque, snarling faces surrounding a Christ heavily burdened by the wooden beams of his cross along the Via Dolorosa. The composition is cramped, with no background space or respite from the ugly faces tormenting the humble Christ. Painted by Hieronymus Bosch—the artist responsible for the Garden of Earthly Delights (1515)—Wise described how Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1515–1516) illustrated Renaissance Christian devotion. “The ugliness of the people reflects the hatred and treachery in their hearts,” Wise said. Bosch demonstrates that the viewer’s rejection of Christ as the Savior could deform the soul into a mangy, degenerate character.

What is equally striking about devotional art, particularly in the Northern Renaissance, is the immense attention to detail that brings the narrative alive. One of the most agonizing pieces of Renaissance art is Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) depicting a twisted, tortured, pierced, and sickly Christ writhing on the cross in immense pain. The altarpiece was painted for a hospital run by Antonite monks. Hospitals in that time, Wise explained, were not so much for healing sick patients as providing them a comfortable place to die. “The way you died was extremely important in the Renaissance,” Wise continued. “[In hospitals] there were lots of priests around for the final moments of your life who could hear your confession and administer the last sacrament as you prepared to meet God.”

In the St. Anthony Hospital, the altarpiece also served another important service besides spiritual uplift: diagnosing a disease called St. Anthony’s Fire. The disfigurements seen on the body of Christ—painfully twisted limbs, skin lesions, gangrene, and blackened lips—were all symptoms of St. Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, which was contracted by eating a certain fungus that grows on rye. Christ’s suffering is the ultimate manifestation of empathy as his image experiences the same horrific disfigurements displayed by patients suffering from St. Anthony’s Fire. “This is a God who truly suffers with his people,” Wise commented. New patients were guided to the altarpiece and symptoms were compared to determine whether they had St. Anthony’s Fire.

Another highly sympathetic piece of art is Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent From the Cross (1435–38), one of the most well-known from the Northern Renaissance. The figures surrounding Christ feel his pain—from the dramatically twisting body of Mary Magdalene to the realistic tears pouring from the face of Nicodemus. Van der Weyden’s painting, Wise said, “invites viewers to mourn with the friends of Christ,” pondering on the painted figures’ pain as if it were their own.

Also rendering the moments after Christ’s death is Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–99) where the recently deceased Savior sprawls across his mother’s lap as she tenderly gazes upon him in grief. The Pietà, Wise told the audience, is a Northern subject adopted by Michelangelo to share Mary’s mourning. Far from being the broody, difficult, faithless man known from popular legend, Wise believes Michelangelo to have been a broody, difficult man whose highly religious beliefs are sometimes overlooked. Evidence of Michelangelo’s religiosity, Wise believes, comes from his signature carved into the front of Mary’s chest, over her heart. More than just a sign of ownership, Wise names this gesture as a devout action meant to figuratively include Michelangelo in Mary’s embrace of her son. It is Michelangelo’s prayer, Wise said, that his heart “be like the heart of the Lord’s mother,” with the face of Christ firmly and permanently printed upon it.


Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Photos courtesy of WikiCommons