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The Crucifixion (Anthony Wierix & Martin de Vos, ca. 1590), engraving on paper

It is Good Friday, and as per tradition, here is an exquisite crucifixion artwork to mark the occasion. The beautifully engraved print is remarkable for its enormous quality, precision, and detail: just look at the lightning striking Jerusalem in the distant background! However it is also remarkable for the two (or three) levels of reality which the artists/printmakers have divided it into. In the central rectangle, Jesus is crucified on a hill in Israel as Mary, Mary Magdalen, and Saint John lament. Moving outwards by a degree, we find a second, rather more metaphorical frame which presents the instruments of the passion: the cross, the scourge, the nails, the pitcher of vinegar. Only as we examine the carefully engraved items in depth do we discover how allegorical these images really are. The coins are avarice. The flail is cruelty. The cock is denial. The vinegar is bitterness. The sepulcher is fear. These bedrock emotional drives are the true tools of the Passion. It is by means of the universal nature of humankind that Jesus was slain, but only by transcending such things and moving inwards to a more divine and transcendent level of faith, tenderness, and compassion can we be redeemed.

Of course there is an unspoken third level as well–of bare paper which has not been pressed by the plate. This reminds us that we are looking at a little nesting universe of profound ideas which are the contrivance of gifted artists working in the real world with ink, burins, presses, and paper in order to make us think more carefully about existence…or such would be the case if you were looking at this in a Duke’s library or the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Instead you are looking at this on the internet on glowing pixels on my blog–so there is really a fourth meta-level of ideological interpretation (conveniently provided by me, some random guy on the internet just writing stuff). The 16th century was an age when thrilling new media lead humankind to terrible excesses (there is a reason all of those torture implements look so realistic). Theologians, political leaders, and rabble-rousers used these new tools to whip up the sectarian passions of Christ’s followers and drive the faithful to slay the faithful in vast religious wars. There is a symbolic reason the scimitar, the torturer’s tongs, and the open crypt are closer to the viewer than Christ is: God is separated from us not just by space and time, but by supernatural and moral hierarchy as well (and by ethnicity too, as the Hebrew at the top reminds us). I wonder if His followers in the modern era will see what the Christian artists of the new mass media arts of the 16th century were trying so hard to explain…

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