One of the most compelling figures in religious art is the Man of Sorrows, a frontal image of the dead Christ cut off at the waist: bereft of the crucifixion narrative, upright, his eyes closed, his head tilted to one side, on the cusp of the resurrection. 

In a world in which wars and disasters continually shock us with new suffering, the image conveys the compassion and hope that are at the heart of the Christian faith, and seems to sum up the stories and feelings of Holy Week in a single, richly complex vision. 

Dead yet alive, human yet divine, the Man of Sorrows was inspired by the prophecy of Isaiah 52-53: “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” as the alto solo in Handel’s “Messiah” unforgettably sets that text. The image began as an icon in the Eastern Roman Empire but was adapted to settings all over Western Europe from about 1300 to about 1650. Isaiah’s poem became the first reading in the Good Friday services. 

Two exhibits — “Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese” at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore — offer a unique setting to enter into the mystery of salvation through artistic beauty. 

As Bible scholar John Sawyer, author of “The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity,” told a colloquium in New York on March 19, the words “man of sorrows” come from St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible from the Hebrew into Latin as Vir dolorum. In Middle English “sorrow” meant physical suffering, not just emotional anguish. Isaiah’s humble servant was seen as vicariously suffering to redeem humankind. 

Byzantine origins 

An icon is a sacred image, typically facing forward and static, intended as a window to the divine. Icons, albeit often marvelous art works, did not express the artist’s personality, but spoke timeless religious truths, and a few types persisted unchanged for centuries. Icons are the great achievement of Eastern Orthodox art, commonly called “Byzantine.” 

In contrast, Western Christian art usually tells a story, in keeping with Pope St. Gregory the Great’s maxim that art in houses of worship are the “Bible of the illiterate,” and Western art often undergoes rapid change, especially since artists began signing their works. 

The Baltimore show focuses on reliquaries — the precious receptacles created to hold the earthly remains of holy persons and the objects they had touched. It has brought to the United States the most famous of all Man of Sorrows icons, the “Imago Pietatis” loaned by the Church of Santa Croce in Rome through May 15. 

This object is a micro-mosaic, a picture of Jesus propped up and displaying his wounds before the cross, made of thousands of tiny bits of stone embedded in wax. Made around 1300 in Constantinople, it arrived in Rome in 1380 and must have struck viewers as a miracle, partly because of its meticulous craft, and also as the bones of more than 150 saints are arrayed in the frame. 

It soon came to be identified with the vision Pope Gregory had when saying Mass at that very church in the sixth century. A woman who scoffed when Gregory declared the Host to be “the body of our Lord Jesus Christ” was restored to faith when the consecrated bread turned into the actual body of Christ before the eyes of all. 

As pilgrims flocked to Santa Croce to venerate this reliquary, the “Imago Pietatis” was replicated all over Europe as the “Mass of St. Gregory.” 

But the figure was popular in the West decades earlier. A silver-gilt reliquary from Prague in the mid-1300s, made to house a relic of the Holy Thorn, features a standing Man of Sorrows, identified as such by his crossed hands, and the wounds of the crucifixion.  

The sculptor adapted this icon to include the Western love of narrative. Jesus leans on the cross and is surrounded by all the tools of his torment — hammer, whips, nails, sponge, the column of the scourging, the cock that crowed thrice, even the dice soldiers threw for his garments. This piece is deliberately theatrical, so as to help a worshipper to see and share the Passion of Christ. 

‘Cristo passo’ in Venice 

“Passion in Venice” captures the unique role of the Venetian republic in appropriating the Byzantine icon from the Orthodox East and adapting it to the mercantile West.  

Husband-and-wife curators William Barcham and Catherine Puglisi have assembled more than 60 paintings, drawings, sculptures, prints, processional crosses, manuscript illuminations and liturgical vessels, tracing the Man of Sorrows after it was first taken over intact from the Byzantine model. MOBIA brings the theme up to date by showing evocative drawings by modern masters Cezanne and Manet.  

It all began in 1345, when the Venetian Republic commissioned Paolo Veneziano to paint the Pala Feriale, the polyptych (multipaneled altarpiece) that covered the main altar 350 days a year. The panel at the center of the top depicted the Man of Sorrows on a gold-leaf background. While this altarpiece could not leave Venice, MOBIA is exhibiting a nearly identical panel by Jacobello del Bonomo from later in the 1300s. 

In Venice and its territory, Barcham and Puglisi report that the Dead Christ acquired a dialect name: “Cristo passo.” The word “passo” seems to come from the Nicene Creed “passus,” translated as “he suffered, died.” Only in Venice does “Cristo passo” regularly show up at the pinnacle of the altarpiece. 

This officially sanctioned image was repeatedly reshaped. It adorns the tabernacles of the Holy Sacrament, is carved on tombs, tops processional crosses, and often features in illustrations for the rulebooks and membership lists of charitable societies and even banks. It becomes full-length, adds angels, shifts in pose — until it appears in dramatic canvases by the late 16th-century masters Tintoretto, Veronese and Palma Giovane. 

The “Cristo passo” was intimately linked to the Eucharist. A pyx in the MOBIA show, a silver-gilt container for the consecrated host, has been lent for the first time ever by the cathedral of Treviso (north of Venice). At Communion, the priest would lift the cover of the pyx by a handle made of an exquisitely sculpted Man of Sorrows. It was so prized that an altarpiece of 1520 in the same church portrays the Magi presenting this very vessel to the Baby Jesus. 

New challenges, forms 

By the 16th century, polyptychs, with each story or saint in its own gold-ground panel, were no longer fashionable. The altarpieces of the Renaissance joined heavenly and earthly figures in a single field, bathed in the beauty of God’s nature. The challenge was how to keep the tradition of the Man of Sorrows in its prime position where there was no longer a pinnacle. The painter Veronese solved this masterfully in the arched top half of a huge altarpiece of circa 1565. 

Restored to its original brilliant colors, the painting loaned by the National Gallery of Canada depicts a trinity of angels tenderly supporting the dead Christ in the clouds amid the instruments of the Passion, as if readying him to rise again. The altarpiece was cut apart and dispersed 200 years ago. Originally, saints (including Jerome, author of the “Man of Sorrows” formula, and Francis of Assisi, whose religious order was especially devoted to this image) gathered below the Eucharistic vision. 

Nora Hammerman writes from Virginia.

Exhibit information (sidebar)

“Passion in Venice: Crivelli to Tintoretto and Veronese” runs through June 12 at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York. Visit www.mobia.org or call 212-408-1500 for details. 

“Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore ends May 15. Visit thewalters.org/ or call 410-547-9000.