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Contemplating Internalised Monumentality Mediated by Material: Giovanni Pisano’s Crucified Christ (c. 1280) | ARTLECTURE

Contemplating Internalised Monumentality Mediated by Material: Giovanni Pisano’s Crucified Christ (c. 1280)


/The History/
by Sarah J Yoon
Contemplating Internalised Monumentality Mediated by Material: Giovanni Pisano’s Crucified Christ (c. 1280)
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HIGHLIGHT


A small piece constructed from observation and resulting rumination by a modern medievalist’s perspective on a thirteenth century ivory piece sitting in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Last week, I have introduced the anchorite saint Julian of Norwich and have briefly explored a section of her famous text, The Revelations of Divine Love. The hermit saint who had spent most of her days within the confines of her cell in Norwich shared her out-of-the-body experience in writing, which transcended the age and reached our present selves.

 

It is always the minute things which are often overlooked that comes to mind as one sits and ponders about life. As a self-identified medievalist that walks the planes of this earth in 2021, a small fragmentary piece of ivory, holstered in an exhibition hall in one of the biggest museums in London came to my mind this week.

 


Figure 1.  Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c. 1280s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Author’s own.


 

In the Room 9 of the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum, there lies a small piece of ivory, resting in a case that is perhaps far too big for its diminutive size. (Fig. 1) It is a fragmentary remains of a statuette of the Crucified Christ, made out of ivory with traces of gilding in the air and colouring in the loincloth. Here, Christ is shown at the point of death, with his eyes closed and his head turned to one side; his mouth is slightly agape and the veining of the ivory creates several gashes on his left cheek, emphasising his suffering. (Fig. 2) The work depicts the iconography known as the Man of Sorrows, a popular motif to be depicted in ivory. His long hair is divided into three distinctive cascading locks and falls onto each of his shoulders and down the back. (Fig. 3) His beard appears to have been trimmed short, encasing the entirely of his jaw. The corpus of Christ, carved fully in the round, is now missing its arms and legs below the knees. The two gaping holes on its shoulders indicates that the arms would have been formed from separate ivory fragments, designed to be slotted into them. (Figs. 4 and 5) The legs has been roughly broken off. The figure carries an almost Baroque” sense of rotating figural form: the upper part of the body twists to its right, whereas the lower half turns to its left. The figure gently twines around its axis, and this serpentine form creates a sense of emotional drama, vividly manifesting the the moment in the salvation narrative in which the slackened body of Christ, slumps heavily with the burden of sin and suffering. 

 


Figure 2. Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c. 1280s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Courtesy of V&A Museum, London.


 

The fragmentary ivory crucifix, which has been attributed to Giovanni Pisano,[1] kindles three different concerns: firstly, the choice of the material, the religious motif used, and the meaning that it seeks to communicate, when the two former points are taken together into consideration. The following paragraphs will endeavour to explore the material property of the ivory as can be read from the object, the significant role that it plays in unveiling the theological significance of the depicted Christ on the crucifix. The broader question of the role of material as an agency in creating meaning in works of art will be considered.



Figure 3. A Detail of Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c. 1280s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Courtesy of V&A Museum, London.

Figure 4. A Detail of Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c. 1280s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Courtesy of V&A Museum, London.

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Figure 5. A Detail of Giovanni Pisano, The Crucified Christ, c. 1280s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Courtesy of V&A Museum, London.

 


High naturalism is the most prominent formal aspect of the work on multiple levels. The alternating technique of high and low relief, while it demonstrates the sculptor’s technical skills, presents us with a highly naturalised depiction of the Christ. The directional flow of the long hair, marked by long, linear carving is starkly contrasted by the short coiling hair of the beard. The ribs are merely indicated by subtle low relief carving while the finely pronounced frown lines on the forehead are incised carefully to create the impression of the suffering Christ. The loincloth shows the rippling textures of the ivory which has been carved on varying degrees of depth. Such effects, while affirming the technically advanced skills of the sculptor, are also achieved due to the physical properties of ivory. Valued and appreciated for its unique structural properties, ivories are made out of dentine cells in formation of enamel that takes a honeycomb appearance with the development of mineral crystals.[2] This gives them a tensile strength, making it suitable for long-lasting, detailed carving, as evident from the fine tendrils of hair and the loosely-falling clothes of the object. An oily substance within the cavities of the interlacing patterns in the tusk that helps to reduce the brittleness and that gives a smooth finish, which can be enhanced with polishing. This gives a clean beauty and soft feel to the work akin to human skin, adding to the sense of naturalism.

 

The work, while it may have been opalescently white, appears to have been discoloured, and yellowed. This again, could be explained by one of ivoriesphysical properties, as they are prone to change over time, especially when brought into frequent contact with human skin, oils and perspiration that makes the creamy white colour to darken. The work, given its small scale (approximately 15 cm in height) is likely to have been used as a portable crucifix that one would have held in his hands for recitation prayers. The discolouration is especially evident around the torso, whose features have been yellowed and darkened, perhaps testifying that there would have been frequent contact with moist palms.

 

The lack of polychromy present emphasises the smooth, even surface of ivory. The work bears resemblance to human bone fragments, by which symbolic associations could be made. Ivory, as a material, is imbued with theological significance, as found by several biblical references from the Old Testament.  Most famously, King Solomon allegedly made a great throne of ivory and overlaid it with pure gold, which associates ivory with luxury, power and glory — a belief that was prevalent in the Middle Ages.[3] A stark contrast is provided in the example of King Ahab, a corrupt king of the Northern Israel, made a house of ivory, which downgrades the morality of the material as a representation of vanity and superficiality.[4] One further reference could be found from the Book of Amos that states, and the houses of ivory shall perish, which adds a prophetic, apocalyptic dimension to the ideas surrounding the material ivory, prognosticating that wealth and vanity will come to an end.[5] Such theological significance that attest to the vanity of life, emphasises the perils of an attachment to transient worldly pleasures. This object, however, is laced with a sense of paradox. The material, which is complicated by its symbolic biblical associations addressing the futility of vanity, is paired with the iconography of the Crucifix, the symbol of eternal salvation that embodies Gods atonement of the sin and the triumph over the finality of life. The ivory, in this sense, works in relation with the subject depicted, serving as a warning to its beholder to embrace an attitude of contemptus Mundi — the contempt of the world.[6]

 

Taking both the properties and the symbolic values of the ivory into account, the material object that we might have in front of us generates a sense of uncanniness of having the miniature mimetic representation of the broken holy body — the humanised God — materialised in one’s hands. Duality of powers is conveyed in the work. The emotive iconography and the use of ivory coexist together to send across a powerful ecclesiastical dialogue of problem and solution: the condemned futile human life met by the God’s extended hand of salvation. The idea of holding the symbol of salvation — the eternal afterlife, a concept far removed from one’s physical presence during lifetime, triggers an emotional response and perhaps, enhances the sense of desperation and the longing for salvation that its original beholders would have had whilst praying using the crucifix.  This is echoed by Daniel Miller’s argument who propounds that materiality has the power to elevate objects from being ‘mere things as artefacts’ to those that ‘transcend the dualism of subjects and objects’.[7] The beholder would have been prompted to recognise his own mortality while becoming more aware of the materialised immaterial divine being in his hand. It is this tactility of the material object that gives greater power to the message, which makes the use of ivory highly significant and integral in communicating with the beholder. The nature of this message remains common in late medieval works of art and this crucifix finds its place within the larger group of tangible devotional objects. Being able to hold the object in the very moment of worship, allows greater sense of connection with the deity during worship, intensifying the desire to reach salvation through acts of devotion. This materialisation of grasping what is seemingly intangible, which ivory offers, would have made the work highly powerful medium in its own right.

 

Contrary to the original beholders however, the modern beholders are presented with the fragmentary remains of the statuette — it is a literal translation of the broken form the the broken body of Christ. This prompts one further question: how does the materiality of the work change its agency over the modern beholders? The material agency becomes more charged as the broken form makes the viewers more aware of both the jagged texture and the smooth exterior surface. The textural juxtaposition confronts the viewer with material quality of the work. Reflecting on the idea of materialisation of the immaterial, the tactility of the object, provided by the ivory, is the essential element that allows the work to exercise its agency — when forms have the power to cause effects — on its original owner.[8] This is an object whose intangible concept has been materialised to give it a tactile quality that ensures a physical contact with the owner. The signs of age and utility evident from the discolouration further challenges the kinaesthetic curiosity of the modern beholders. Recalling Miller’s anthropological ideas of how objects could act as the “mirror” of human activities by bearing these marks that display the preoccupations and the lives of its original beholder, the present state of the ivory testifies to its own history, giving the material a greater agency as the signifier of the object history.[9]

 

The socio-historical context, in which the work may find itself changes. The current society no longer operates within a system reliant on organised religion as compared to the thirteenth century social models and the object has been removed from its original location — whether it would have been an Italian church, a domestic space or the pocket of the original intended beholder — to a acrylic vitrine in the Victoria and Albert Museum amongst other medieval objects (stained glass, altarpieces, other ivories alike) from the continental Europe. (Fig. 6) It is a marked transition and transportation from a religious sacred space into an educational secular space, which doubles as a cultural depository of artefacts. The surrounding space, the nature of the viewer, the social beliefs have all changed, yet the material is the one unifying, lasting factor that continues to exist in the same form. It bears the history of the object as signs and carries the theological, historical, and conceptual significance: adding a great weight to the ivory.



 Figure 6. Room 9 of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Source : Author’s own.


 

Pisano’s choice to use ivory in depicting this broken corpus allows greater naturalism and strengthens the religious message conveyed due to its physical properties and traditional associations with Christian faith. The uncanny resemblance of ivory with human bones serves as a physical and actual reminder of mortality at hand, which is answered by the christological iconography of Man of Sorrows. The materialisation of the concept that the subject embodies, adds a newfound dimension of tactility, which elevates immateriality to materiality that allows the work to communicate its universal message of God’s salvation on a more direct and assertive level. On this account, the work has an agency on the owner; however, it is the material - the ivory - that inaugurates the meanings, raising the status of the work from a mere repository of meanings to the object where its meanings are integrated with its material nature. It is also the material — ivory — that gives a greater sense of weight, of monumentality to the object.



[1] Attributed by John Pope-Hennessy in 1965.

J. Pope-Hennessy, “An ivory by Giovanni PisanoVictoria and Albert Museum Bulletin. Vol. 1, no. 3, (July 1965), pp. 9-16.

[2] A MacGregor, Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period (Beckenham, 1985) pp. 14-16.

[3] 1 Kings x,18 and 2 Chronicles ix, 17

[4] 1 Kings xxii, 39.

[5] Amos iii, 15.

[6] Paul Williamson and Glyn Davies, Medieval Ivory Carvings: 1200-1550 Part I, (V&A, 2014), p. 472.

[7] Daniel Miller, Materiality, (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 3.

[8] op. cit. p. 11.

[9] ibid., pp. 17-20.

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Sarah J Yoon

I read History of Art as an undergraduate at Oxford University and studied Medieval Studies for masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Presently, I am working as a researcher for a private art collector that specifically collects antiquities in Seoul. My primary research interest lies within the late medieval European visual and material culture, touching on the semantic relationship between images and text, historicity, and reinterpretation of medieval art history in light of contemporary critical theories