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No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

By Jonah Coman

North Street Review, Vol.20 (2017)

Röttgen Pietà, c. 1300-25

Introduction: In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C), one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down.

Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay. The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections.

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