Finding Truth in Spiritual Space: A Comparison of Andrea Pozzo’s Counter-Reformation Church and James Turrell’s Quaker Meeting House

by Kathryn Bowne, Independent Scholar

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter life, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light. —Plato, “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic

Conceived through an investigation of the 2011 Venice Biennale, titled ‘Illuminations’ and coupled with an analysis of the expanding curatorial interest in creating thematic dialogues between works spanning centuries, this article explores the juxtapositions curator Bice Curiger set between the works of the Renaissance master, Tintoretto, and the contemporary Light and Space artist, James Turrell. Focusing on the analogous use of light, perspective, and illusion, Curiger equates Tintoretto’s three works The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, the Creation of Animals, and the Last Supper, to the same level of modernity as Turrell’s The Ganzfeld Piece.

The comparison of works, which Curiger displays together in the exhibition, demonstrates the ability the artists have in granting the viewer access through the act of distinguishing a truth or reality; through the guise of simulacrum the viewer’s optical perception is tricked resulting in journey to the realm of spiritual meditation.[i]

This article seeks to explore and understand such use of artifice to lead to a spiritual enlightenment for the viewer by comparing spaces of similar objectives—churches. Grounded in a similar cosmological vernacular, a comparison between Andrea Pozzo’s seventeenth-century Counter-Reformation church and James Turrell’s contemporary Quaker Meeting House offers a study of works by artists’ intent on creating a constructed realm of spirituality through illusion and the interplay of light through natural phenomena versus artistic skill.


Both works are representative of the artists’ respective zeitgeist, allowing them to serve as clear determinants of skill and intent based on the viewers’ ability to comprehend the appropriate meaning. Constructed as an access point through the liminal experience provided by crossing the threshold or physical transition into a spiritual institution, the architecture in each work functions as intermediate realities between the viewer and their religious beliefs. The familiar iconography is therefore activated by the cunning skill of the artists replicating or framing nature in using the tools of trompe l’oeil and quadratura to awaken the perceptive participation of the viewer.

In critical theory, the act of placing importance on perception and awareness of one’s senses to create an experience is considered phenomenology. Focusing on the optic or cognitive senses, this article explores aesthetic and perceptual modes of the philosophy, and closely follows philosopher Edmund Husserl’s thought that ‘ “fiction” makes up the vital element of phenomenology,’ which is based upon the apprehension of what is understood.[ii] One must also consider Richard Wolheim’s analysis in stating, ‘if a picture represents something, then there will be a visual experience of the picture that determines that it does so. This experience I call the ‘appropriate experience’ of the picture.’[iii] In extending this concept, scholar Susan L. Feagin explains, ‘the appropriate experience is defined both in terms of its phenomenology and in terms of artists’ intentions. Phenomenologically, the experience has two aspects, the configurational and recognitional. Through separable logically for the purpose of analysis, they are fused phenomenologically in an experience that has, as it were, its own gestalt.’[iv] Both artists implement different uses of trompe l’oeil to establish an ‘appropriate experience’ for the viewer, as they come to question the reality of what they are seeing, in which forces the act of examining the art for a truth in the image opposed to the artists’ illusion.

In order to aptly build a comparison between the phenomenological experience of works by Pozzo and Turrell, which span centuries and artistic movements, one must define the modes of spiritual thought respective to dates of the buildings’ executions. In Fra Andrea Pozzo’s Jesuit Church of St Ignatius in Rome, (1691-1694) the viewer is absorbed by the visual propaganda of the Counter-Reformation. Following the Council of Trent and acting on thought from the Medieval period as a foundation in the religious movement, the Counter-Reformation sought to reform and systemize the meditative form of mental prayer.[v] Artists were tasked with depicting the stories of the theologian and founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius of Loyola, and how the order’s mission spread God’s glory through the world while cleansing the church of idolatry.[vi] These painted allegories acted as invitation or direction to a spiritual transcendence.

Using the image of St Ignatius, author of the Spiritual Exercises, soaring upwards to the heavens, the Counter-Reformation viewer would have been made aware of the concentration on senses in perceiving spirituality. His words in ‘On the Bodily Senses’ state:

About the five bodily senses the same order will be kept, but changing their matter.            Whoever wants to imitate Christ our Lord in the use of his senses, let him in the            Preparatory Prayer recommend himself to His Divine Majesty, and after considering on each sense, say a Hail Mary or an Our Father. And whoever wants to imitate Our Lady in the use of the senses, let him in the Preparatory Payer recommend himself to her, that she may get him grace from Her Son and Lord for it; and after considering on each sense, say a Hail Mary.[vii]

Guiding meditation through asking the reader to be aware of their senses, St Ignatius attempts to build the experience of transcendence. Responding to this, Pozzo tries to accomplish the same mission by providing clear instruction through the senses in a full assimilation of the optical phenomena.

With a deep understanding of the Jesuit mission, Pozzo codified the “Jesuit style” through his depiction of the Glorification of St Ignatius (1685), which decorates the long single nave of the church. Flanking the illusion of Heaven in the barrel-vaulted nave are the personifications of the four corners of the known world to which the legions of missionaries were sent. The tumbling figures reach out to the viewer, creating a vertiginous effect of the vault lifting from the architecture and into the heavens while also including the audience in the missionary journey depicted. In the center, the saint is welcomed into paradise by Christ and the Virgin Mary. Describing his work, Pozzo states, ‘In the middle of the vault I have painted the figure of Jesus, who sends forth a ray of light to the heart of Ignatius, which is then transmitted by him to the most distant hearts of the four parts of the world.’[viii]

The Glorification of St Ignatius
The Glorification of St Ignatius

Concurrent to the execution of the Church of St Ignatius, the Religious Society of Friends was founded in England as an alternative practice of Christianity. Varying in aesthetic language and rejecting iconography or depiction of imagery in its environments, Quaker meeting houses offer spaces of light and nature to guide personal meditation. Raised as a Quaker, or ‘child of light,’ James Turrell equates light to religion. ‘This is going into meditation and waiting for the light to come…It had to do with spirit, spirituality, thought…’[ix]  Rejecting the dramatic style of the Baroque, but intrigued by the all-encompassing luminosity of Gothic Cathedrals, Turrell focused on the metaphor of light in spiritual spaces. Thus, the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston, Texas, completed in 2000, offers a transport to spiritual guidance though the flooding of light in the space which is familiar from the liminal experience of the cathedrals.

Comparative to St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, also wrote about the task of personal meditation to find the ‘Inner Light.’ He believed that the meeting houses offered an ‘opening’ of the mind to lead one to God, thus the space should be void of distraction, giving the ability to locate oneself in space.[x] Also, comparing to the allegory of St Ignatius spreading the word of God, the Quakers similarly believed that there was a light in God, that was then brought to his followers as the soul takes flight in meditation.[xi]

‘It is what the eye of the soul seeks as it looks upward towards the truth. In our world truth is impossible, and what we experience as light is something different, the transitory and imperfect copy of the light that never goes out. In the ideal world God, truth, and light are the same.’[xii]

Significantly smaller than the scale of the Church of St Ignatius, the Friends Meeting House is one cubic room lined with oak pews and a slight semi-cylindrical ceiling vault with a large square opening to the actual sky. The continuum of space offered by the raw sky furthers the metaphysical association with the cosmos as the natural light floods the single room, bringing the viewer into the same realm. The use of light and illusion as an aesthetic language in the realm of the spiritual offers the same instruction to the Quaker viewer as did the iconography of St Ignatius to the Counter-Reformation viewer.

Both artists not only utilized the iconography of their respective religions but treated perspective as a medium in their practice. Since the development of systematic perspective in the Renaissance, artists have been able to create volume on two-dimensional planes. In the seventeenth-century artists began to incorporate the built architecture of the building into the picture. Disrupting the personal boundaries of the viewer, Pozzo designed a scheme in which the figures amongst the built architecture are proportionate to the viewer. Floating between the realms of physical and liminal dimensions, the figures invite the viewer to be part of the continuum of space.[xiii] The geometry in the perspective attempt to place the viewer within the environment is called quadratura.[xiv]

In deluding one’s senses through the geometric trickery of creating a dome on a flat surface, Pozzo successfully fools the viewer through the use of quadratura. Originally planned to have a massive dome, the architectural plan was changed after the neighboring Dominican monks complained the structure would block the natural light in their library, Pozzo was thus commissioned with the challenge of creating a dome on a two-dimensional plane. To the seventeenth-century Christian viewer, the dome was considered an aiding device in establishing the liminal space of a church, allowing Pozzo the ability to use a depicted architectural language already familiar to the viewer. The false windows shed a volume of light through the painted pilasters supporting the dome’s coffered ceiling. Depicting the saint’s accession, the painted figures are aided by the words ‘ite, omina incendite et inflmmate,’ or ‘Go, set the whole world on fire and in flame.’[xv] The combined elements resulted in fooling the viewer’s ocular perception.

Copula of St. Ignatius
Copula of St. Ignatius

A pioneer in this illusionary use of perspective, Pozzo was aware of the psychology of experience through creating a dimension between the aesthetic and religious boundaries of self, and the “subservience of self,” and offers the question in the study of where ‘you’ end and something else begins.[xvi] To accomplish this, Pozzo created an optimal vantage point marked by a yellow marble circle on the side of the nave. From that point, the viewer turns into a participant through a forced comprehension of the dome. In his writings, he states ‘All that is unpleasing now will become pleasing, and where there is now a flat ceiling, I will make a cupola.’[xvii]  Confirming the role of illusion as a vehicle of a perceptive experience, Pozzo also states, ‘no viewer leaves this church without having become aware that the covering over the crossing is two-dimensional painting. The effect of discovery is thus the inevitable second part of perception, virtually an ironic response and repudiation of one’s first impression.’[xviii]

Trained as a perceptual psychologist, Turrell focused on the ‘perceptual concepts of space,’ in creating his light filled environments void of a concrete sensory reality.[xix] Similar to the effects of Pozzo’s use of quadratura, Turrell explores the semiotics of the Quaker faith in constructing an illusionary and intermediary atmosphere where one is forced to focus on the self.   Turrell states, ‘My work is about how we construct reality. The real illusion is that we aren’t aware of how we give reality to things. We have awarded them concreteness of reality and are unaware of how we have done that.’[xx]

The perspective which Turrell creates in establishing a minimal horizon line between the architecture of the ceiling cut and the sky produces an atmospheric phenomena in which the natural sky appears to become two-dimensional.  He states:

What happened then is that I got more interested in the plumbing of hypothetical space and the idea of presence or quality of light. Afrum…was more of a painting in the sense that you have painting on a two-dimensional surface that alludes to perhaps three          dimensions or unsolvable three-dimensional things. This work was about taking three-dimensional space and making the same kind of allusions to the space beyond that—you don’t need to all it fourth dimension but just one that does not solve up in three.[xxi]

Analogous to Pozzo’s program in marking the ideal vantage point to disorient dimensional comprehension, Turrell’s work also focuses on the optic gravitational pull towards the sky or light.

Live Oak Quaker Meeting House
Live Oak Quaker Meeting House

The act of gazing upwards towards the sky results in the participatory perception of the viewer trying to place themselves in a specific time, place, and reality. Using the changing color of the sky as an indicator of time, the viewer can no longer rely on their other senses to establish what is reality and what is illusion. Depriving the viewers of their reliance on their senses allows them to focus on the individual remaining sense and allows for a pure and more concentrated perceptive experience. Psychologist Heinz Werner states, ‘If a subject attempts to experience a determinate color, such as blue, while seeking to adopt with his body an attitude that works for red, an inner battle ensues, a sort of spasm, which ceases as soon as he adopts the bodily attitude that corresponds to blue.’[xxii] Thus, the viewer becomes the catalyst in the perceptive notion of illusion, and activates the architecture.

The experiment in coupling the natural phenomenon of the lit sky with the artifices of art is accomplished by both artists through the depiction of light in trompe l’oeil. Through the activity of gazing towards the vaults of heaven in Pozzo’s ceiling frescos, one is confronted with the status of simulacrum. With natural light from windows above the balustrade in the central nave, the vaulted ceiling takes on a volume opposite to the window-less and dim realm of the viewer. The painted sky offers a continuum of cosmological space, via thought from Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise Della Pittura (1436) on offering a ‘window’ to an alternate reality, resulting in an undistinguishable sense of depth.[xxiii]

Conversely, Turrell’s sky appears as a negative sense of depth in flooding the room with the ethereal cosmos, offering an illusion of trompe l’oeil, when the viewer is, in fact, actually experiencing the natural sky. In evoking the metaphysical element of the soul taking flight in discovering the light within, Turrell states, ‘The sky would no longer be out there, away from us, but in close contact. This plumbing of visual space through the conscious act of moving feeling out through the eyes, became analogous to a physical journey of self as a flight of the soul through the planes.’[xxiv] To expand the illusion, with a multi-colored lighting system synchronized to the sunrise and sunset, the colored light refracts the light altering the natural hues to bright neon colors, and resulting in the perception of seeing a painted canvas.

Expanding on the artists’ intent in using one’s distinction of perspective and depth as a catalyst in participatory and active viewership, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty states,

‘Above all, the illusions of touching upon depth have accustomed us to considering depth as a construction of the understanding. They can be induced by forcing the eyes into a certain degree of convergence…by presenting a perspectival drawing to the subject. Since here I believe I see depth where there is none, is it not because false signs have brought about an hypothesis, and because in general the alleged vision of distance is always in fact an interpretation of signs’[xxv]

In recounting the previously mentioned study of finding truth in natural versus artistic beauty, one must consider the writings of Plato. Philosophizing that beauty can lead the soul to a higher vocation, Plato believed this was only found true in gazing upon natural beauty, as the soul is in a constant search for truth, a thought that would have been recognized by the seventeenth-century viewer. Similar to this reasoning, Hegel states:

Without entering now into the disputed question how far the quality of beauty can justly    be predicated of such objects, and consequently the beauty of Nature comes generally into competition with that of art, we are justified in maintaining categorically that the beauty of art stands higher than Nature. For the beauty of art is a beauty begotten, a new birth of mind; and to the extent that Spirit and its creations stand higher than Nature and its phenomena, to that extent the beauty of art is more exalted than the beauty of Nature.[xxvi]

Thus, the search for truth between the depiction of beauty and nature is the stimulus of activation in the viewers’ evolution into a participant in the art. Purely experiential, the viewers enter both spaces tasked with the challenge to decode the spiritual iconography depicted by the artists. Drawing on external systems of thought, the viewer utilizes the liminal threshold of the institution as an intermediary space between the ‘space of meditation’ and the realm of the ‘quotidian experience.’[xxvii] The perspectival tool of quadratura allows the viewer to be succumbed to the space and utilize the space as a type of optical lens to connect you to the heavenly realms to reach the divine. The celestial depths created by the use of trompe l’oeil offers a vocation in seeking truth in what one sees, activating a phenomenological experience through a spiritual viewership. Ultimately, though Bice Curiger’s comparison between the work of Tintoretto and Turrell was appropriate to the theme of the Biennale, the linking element of liminal experience in the churches gains a more apt comparison in the spanning centuries use of artiface to give the works some verisimilitude and create illusions to result in the viewers’ spiritual transcendence.


[i] Jonathan Jones, “What Light Can Tintoretto Shed on Modern Art at the Venice Biennale?” The Guardian, May 6, 2011, accessed November 10, 2016,

[ii] Quote by Husserl. Steven Crowell, “Phenomenology and Aesthetics; or Why Art Matters,” in Art + Phenomenology, ed. Joseph D. Parry, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 35.

[iii] Feagin, “Presentation and Representation,”  234.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Dale A. Johnson, “The Spirit of the Counter-Reformation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1968).

[vi] R. Po-chia Hsia,The World of Catholic Renewal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 170.

[vii] “St Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises- Christian Classics Ethereal Library,” accessed November 4, 2016,

[viii] Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, “East and West: Jesuit Art and Art in Central Europe, and Central European Art in the Americas,” in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540-1773, (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2016).

[ix] Lynn M. Herbert, “Spirit and Light and the Immensity Within,” in Spirit and Light, (Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, 1998), 15.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ciaran Benson, “Points of View and Non: Visual Art and Location of Self,” in The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds, (London: Rutledge, 2001), 198.

[xiv] Susan L. Feagin, “Presentation and Representation,” The American Society of Aesthetics, 56 (Summer 1998): 235.

[xv] Mark Bosco, “Ite Inflammate Omnia: Setting the World on Fire with Learning,” Conversations on Jesuit Higher Education: Vol. 49, Article 3 (2016), 3.  

[xvi] Benson, “Points of View and None: Visual Art and Location of Self,” 193.

[xvii] Victoria Hammond, “The Dome in European Architecture,” in Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture, ed. by David Stephenson, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 59.

[xviii] Hammond, “The Dome in European Architecture,” 59.

[xix] Turrell interview with Julia Brown in Occluded Front, James Turrell, quoted in Adcock, 13. In Merideth Kooi, “James Turrell’s Cave and Unveiling Truth,” last modified on October 24, 2016,

[xx] Benson, “Points of View and None: Visual Art and Location of Self,” 199.

[xxi] Jan Butterfield, Light + Space, (New York: Abbeville Publishing Group, 1993), 72.

[xxii] Quote by Heinz Werner, “Untersuchungen über Empfindung und Empfinden,” in Maurice Merleau- Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Rutledge, 2013), 22.

[xxiii] Joaö Cabeleira, “Experiencing Architecture through Baroque Image: Gonçalves Sena, Painted Architecture as Architectural Space,” 123.

[xxiv] Herbert, “Spirit and Light and the Immensity Within,” 16.

[xxv] Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception,” 273.

[xxvi] G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics, (Clarendon Press, 1998). Pp?

[xxvii] John Macarthur, “The Image as an Architectural Material,” The South Atlantic Quarterly (2002): 681.

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

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] 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.[ii] 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. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.


In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.


This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.


If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.


The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.


[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.