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Medieval Art in a Modern World
When I was looking at different works of art from the Middle Ages in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (medieval wing), one in particular caught my attention. Entitled ďPlaque with the Crucifixion and the Stabbing of Hades,Ē this piece embodies life and death, triumph and defeat, divinity and humanity. Carved in ivory, this plaque, depicting the Passion of Christ with an allusion to Hades (god of the underworld), is from the mid-tenth century, or Middle Byzantine era, and was made in Constantinople. The plaque depicts the death of Christ as a triumph over Hades and thus presents a victory for manís salvation. Centered in the plaque is Christís limp body, his head hanging low to the right, arms outstretched, and knees slightly bent. On the left side of the plaque is Mary, Jesusí mother, mourning the death of her son, the Messiah. On the other side is John the Baptist, also in mourning. Beneath Christís feet are three Roman soldiers, shown dividing his garment. Mary, John, and the soldiers are many times portrayed as the main witnesses of Jesusí suffering for his mercy on humanity. To the immediate left and right of Christ are two angels waiting to escort their Lord back to heaven.
Its title is self-descriptive. The plaque itself is intense in representation and represents more generally the religious devotion present in the medieval period. Since Christianity was a very large part of medieval society, the Crucifixion was a central theme in Gothic art. There was even a guild in Paris devoted to the carving of such images (www.metmuseum.org). I think the impact of the plaque is intensified through the carving of the scene itself. The figures almost seem real, to exist in a three-dimensional world, allowing the viewer to feel some sense of the Passionís influence on the medieval person. The plaque was obviously carved to glorify Christ and his sacrifice, along with illustrating the triumph of everlasting life, according to Christianity, over death. Aside from glorifying, the plaque serves as a teaching and reminder of Christís love and sacrifice for humanity.
When I first saw the plaque, it immediately brought to mind the central position the Church had in medieval society and how religion was a focus of many peopleís lives. With the delicate carvings of the scene, in polished ivory, the plaque gives off a sense of major accomplishment and hard work put into its crafting. In looking at the scene, I am automatically caught up in the feeling of conflict and intensity of Christís death in defeating Hades. The two contrasting figures are intriguing, the position of Christís lifeless body above the tortured Hades providing a complex picture of opposing forces at work in everyoneís life. I am also very interested in the artistís decision to use Hades, the Greek god of war, in the Crucifixion scene as opposed to Satan. Itís almost as if the artist was hinting at Christianityís dominance and prevalence over other religions and belief systems. But the artist could also have been implementing a mythological god in his depiction of the Crucifixion because all figures representing death, no matter what religion or belief, are ultimately defeated by good. In the end, good forces are victorious while evil is defeated.
While the artistís intention can be argued and his opinions questioned, the plaque itself is a piece of art that represents the influence and power of Christianity in the Middle Ages and is very inspiring and beautiful in its detailed depiction. Powerful in its message, the "Plaque with the Crucifixion and Stabbing of Hades" seems to have been carved to elicit an emotional response from any viewer. Its depiction is made more beautiful through the delicately-carved figures in ivory.