Theater & art

Frame by frame

The MFA’s telling portrait of Christ

Museum of Fine Arts
“Christ as the Man of Sorrows” by an unidentified artist on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the entire Museum of Fine Arts, there cannot be many pictures more compelling than this. It’s an unusual version of an old standby of Christian iconography, “Christ as the Man of Sorrows.” Everything about it forces your attention.

It is, to begin with, shockingly graphic: There are at least nine separate streams of blood flowing from Christ’s forehead alone. His muscular torso is a gruesome mess. And notice the way the blood coming from the wounds on his left arm seems to trickle upward, against gravity: It’s a device to remind us of Christ’s recent agony; it suggests he has only recently been taken down from the cross.

There is a characteristic 15th-century German stiffness to Christ’s pose here. But the details are electrifying: Note, in particular, his incredibly vivid left hand, and the vein protruding from beneath the skin of his right forearm. And then, too, the exquisite rendering of the plants on the hill; scholars have even been able to identify them: lilies of the valley, columbine, and plantain.


We don’t know who was responsible for this small and magical panel — just that it was painted by an Alsatian artist around 1470. Scholars believe it may be the first extant painting to combine two traditions of Christian iconography: Christ as the Man of Sorrows (that is, the son of god, post-crucifixion, depicted as both living and dead, man and god, arousing deep empathy) and also the so-called Pensive Christ (traditionally, an image of Jesus just before his crucifixion, reflecting sorrowfully on his betrayal and desertion, and the all-around corruption and venality of humankind).

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Still, to me, despite all this metaphysical business, the picture feels hauntingly psychological. I’m arrested in particular by the way Christ is made to occupy the same space as the instruments used to torture him: a birch reed, a flagellum, the crown of thorns, the nails, a pole with a vinegar sponge, and a lance.

Since the whole picture is so heavily symbolic, these things seem to occupy not so much Christ’s physical space as an indeterminate mental space — perhaps his own, perhaps ours.

So these instruments of torture become, strange to say, like the attributes of a mind, just as, in Albrecht Dürer’s most famous print, “Melencolia I,” the unused tools of architecture and geometry, the magic square, the hourglass, the purse and keys, and the rainbow conjure the mental state of the similarly hunched female figure.

Is it, in this case, a mind of infinite love and sacrifice? Of course.


But also, perhaps, the self-sabotaging, haunted-by-demons, divided-against-itself mind of a martyr.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at