Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Crucifixion Scene: Titulus Crucis

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Although I am really getting crunched by the calendar trying to finish up my Latin Bible sayings book (my goal is 4000 sayings, and I'm not even halfway there yet, gulp!), I did want to try to post something in the blog today and since I have not posted about a crucifixion scene in a while, that is what I have chosen to do!

The crucifixion scene of the week this week is actually a deposition scene, in which the body of Christ is shown being taken down ("deposed") from on the cross. The deposition was an especially popular scene with artists and, like the crucifixion, the deposition has a range of motifs which are usually featured.

This deposition by Fra Angelico was painted in the early 15th century (and is on view these days in the lovely church of San Marco in Florence). Although the colors and composition are radiantly beautiful, there are traces of the violence of the crucifixion, with blood visible from the crown of thorns and from the wound in Christ's side. You can see Mary Magdalene (hair unbound) and Mary, the other of Jesus, along with the other female followers of Jesus, waiting to receive the body as it is lowered down by Joseph of Arimathea and other men using a ladder, which is a typical element in deposition scenes. (You can read more about ladder symbolism.)

What I wanted to focus on here in Fra Angelico's painting is the Titulus Crucis, the sign put at the head of the cross. Although it is a bit difficult to make out here in the painting, it is shown in three languages, following the text of the Gospel of John: "And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin."

In Fra Angelico's painting, reflecting the new learning of the Renaissance, you can indeed see the working written out in three languages: Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum; Greek, Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; and even in Hebrew:
ישוע (Yeshua) הנצרי (HaNotsri) ומלך (U'Melech) היהודים (HaYehudim). Apologies for the Hebrew: I am not an expert in the right-to-left style for HTML, alas.

Now the Latin and Greek texts come from the Biblical text itself, but the Hebrew is more of a puzzle. Historically, the language that would have been used would have been Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. For Christian scholars during the Renaissance, however, the historical factor is not what intrigued them. Instead, they were more interested in the mystical properties of the Hebrew inscription itself, which is how they ended up including a vav, "and" ("Jesus the Nazarene AND King of the Jews"). The result is the four-lettered name of God, the tetragrammaton, yod-he-vav-he: Yeshua` HaNotsri U'Melech HaYehudim. Fascinating! You can find out more about this topic in the extremely detailed article at wikipedia.

An anagram of the Latin inscription, INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum), is commonly found in Catholic art, and you might also note the inscription here on Jesus's halo, which reads: CORONA GLORIE, which would be in classical Latin, corona gloriae, "crown of glory."

You can see the halo here in a detail from Fra Angelico's painting which shows the location of the sign at the top of the cross; you can visit the Web Gallery of Art for more views of the entire triptych.



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