The Art of the Cross

Isabella Stewart Gardner, a lifelong Protestant of good New England Puritan stock, seems an odd choice for a collector of crucifixes. But Mrs. Gardner, always one for surprises, owned sixteen crucifixes (or portions thereof), which are currently hanging in the Gardner's exhibition room.

The crucifixes span five hundred years of European religious aestheticism,from a highly schematized bronze working of the mid-12th-century to an exquisitely detailed ivory piece by an early 17th-century Venetian artist. A glass case offers enameled plaques from processional crosses, each no larger than a silver dollar, while a near-lifesize wooden Christ Descending adorns one wall. For the small size of its sampling, The Art of the Cross represents the remarkable diversity of forms available to Medieval and Renaissance artists.

The parameters that governed the creation of these crucifixes-regardless of century, country, or medium-must have been rigid, as there is a set of fairly strict conventions apparent in the pieces. For instance, the artist seemed not to have much latitude in portraying Christ's body: head sunk to the right, right foot crossed over left, knees bent, eyes half closed, mouth slightly open. Here the earliest piece-the clunky bronze staring at you from the first display case-diverges, or perhaps precedes the established conventions. But every other Christ in the room conforms.

That being said, the individuality of these works surpasses their essential similarities. Some of the processional crosses, in fact, play with the very shape of the cross, adding enough filigree and ornamentation that we honestly should question their geometrical status as "cross."

There is the rub: as the exhibition's introductory placards, when they're not re-introducing Mrs. Gardner (what a great dame, look at how devout and open-minded she was, isn't Boston lucky to have had her, etc.), mention that although the figure of the cross does not arise simultaneously with Christianity, it becomes a strikingly powerful image by the Medieval period. So powerful, widely recognized and anticipated, apparently, that even a suggestion of a shape more or less in the cross family evokes the appropriate spiritual response.

On the other hand, the workmanship sometimes detracts from rather than enhances the original purpose of the crucifix. In one case the base of the cross is a Gothic facade in exquisite miniature-little itty-bitty buttresses and gargoyles, teeny-tiny colonettes...prompting one to wonder whether the faithful were ever able to tear their amazed eyes away to examine the serious stuff topping such a masterpiece of minutiae.

The broad range of images collapsed into the space of the crucifix-the processional crosses in particular-was amazing, and encompass many more theological elements than the standard Christ-in-Torment . A common addition is the Apostle Quartet, usually in their symbolic representations: Luke as an ox, Matthew the angel, John the eagle, and Mark the lion. Two sets of plaques from processional crosses are beautifully enameled with these figures, the greens and blues breathtakingly vivid through so many centuries. Sometimes Adam rises from his tomb on the bottom spar, and in one mid 1400s Italian work it's Mary Magdalen at his feet. Another striking theme is to show the crucified Christ on one side of the cross, and Christ-in-Glory (complete with halo and benevolent-yet-judging expression) on the reverse-a visual crash course in basic theology.

Francesco Terilli's ivory crucifix is especially beutiful. Terilli is the only acknowledged artist in the show, and, not unsurprisingly, this piece shows the most raw artistic talent in the collection. Christ, positively luminous against the simple black wooden cross, hangs barely pinioned to the crossbars, threatening to float off at any second. His hair and crown of thorns are rendered with ethereal detail, his face delicately worked, even the drops of blood from the wound in his side are ivory. This piece can't help but draw your undivided attention-and it's no wonder that it captured the eye of a Boston Episcopalian such as Mrs. Gardner. These crosses are almost too beautiful to be religious, and yet the genuine piety evident in the artists' labors gives them a depth beyond many secular works of art.