Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario holds more than 79,000 items in its collection, from 100 A.D. to the present. I’d just seen a tiny fraction of them during the six hours I was there. But if I’m to say which one has stirred the most ripples, it would be the bronze sculpture by Bernini, Corpus (The Crucified Christ), ca. 1655.

Successor of Michelangelo, the Italian Baroque architect and artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini had produced many famous Papal works. I’m impressed by how contemporary this 17th C. sculpture looks with its silvery-bronze color and its minimalist styling. Further, I’m amazed that it has been in private hands all the years… Like you might hear at a party, “Oh, I just happen to own a Bernini.” Having been ‘lost’ and then ‘found’, the sculpture was last in the possession of the Frum family who donated it to the AGO in 2007, estimated value at that time was $50 million.

Murray Frum, real estate developer and philanthropist, had earlier donated an entire African art collection to the AGO. To the general public, probably the most well-known member of his family is his late wife who died of cancer in 1992, the prominent CBC news journalist Barbara Frum.

Unlike the other art works of the crucifix that I’ve seen, the Bernini Corpus has no cross. Its 5 foot 6 inches life-size body hung in midair, supported only at the base.  There it is, right in the middle of the darkened gallery room displayed at eye-level, the suffering Christ suspended in silence. You can get near to the outstretched arms, you can see the loincloth blown to the side, and every minute detail on the body.

Without the backing of the cross, the image gives a weightier impression. You can go right up to the work, except of course you can’t touch it or take a picture, even though both were what I actually wanted to do… But at least, I could look and wonder in nearness.

The cruciform pose of Christ being hung on an invisible cross turns the literal event into a symbolic timelessness. The mere posture of two outstretched arms has long been associated with the essence of the cross: suffering, sacrifice, redemptive salvation. Such a visual icon has been used in many movies effectively. Whether you agree with the director’s message or parallel is another matter. Nonetheless, the archetypal cruciform pose is a powerful image when aptly embedded in a visual context.

Here are a few movies that I can think of where the cruciform pose vividly depicts a memorable moment. (Warning: The following section carries Spoilers.)

How Green Was My Valley (1941): John Ford’s visually contemplative work. When the shaft comes up from the underground mine carrying survivors of the explosion, you can see the rescuer Mr. Gruffydd in the cruciform pose. What’s more, you can even see the Pieta image:

Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Ingmar Bergman’s classic. The estranged father David stretching his arms out in front of the window, sobbing and seeking redemption through family relationship: Cool Hand Luke (1967): After eating 50 eggs, it’s enough suffering for Luke (Paul Newman), a determined radical fighting a callous system in a hopeless prison. His graceful form is a clear contrast to the stark surroundings: The Graduate (1967): Ben (Dustin Hoffman) cries from above: “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine! …” Which yearning heart would not respond to such a passionate cry and be delivered in the nick of time out of a loveless union: Dances With Wolves (1990): Only when you’re not afraid to die, then can you live.  Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) embraces death only to be ushered into a new life and adventure:

Shawshank Redemption (1994): Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) literally digs out a new path to salvation. This is the iconic scene of freedom and cleansing after climbing out from the sewage line: Superman Returns (2006): Superman (Brandon Routh) returning from Krypton to save the world. His famous line to Lois: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear someone crying for one.” Gran Torino (2008): Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) laying down his life to save his young friends from a neighborhood gang, in search of self-redemption: … I’m sure you can think of more.

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Related Posts you might enjoy:

Alex Colville and the Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies”

  1. What fascinating connections you make here. Was the Bernini originally intended to be hung without the cross, or is that the (brilliant, in fact) idea of the owners and the AGO? I ask because I thought that most of the Italian Renaissance sculptors were commissioned by a or THE Church (if not a Medici), so might there orginally have been a wooden cross behind this Christ?

    I am very ignorant of Art History. Before reading this, all I knew of Bernini was that he had done a pair of doors (yes?). But i find it fascinating that this pose, the epitome of extreme physical and emotional pain is also used as one of extreme joy, even release, as you’ve shown in Dances with Wolves and The Shawshank Redemption (a favorite film, and a favorite scene)–even in Titanic. The “King of the World’ bit.

    You see the most remarkable things, Arti. It is an incredible sculpture. Thank you for sharing it, and your always provocative insights. I don’t look at anything in the same way after a visit here!

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    ds,

    Thank you for your kind words. I’m no art expert either, and your comment has sent me to more research. I’ve provided a new link on my post at the end for more detailed descriptions of the sculpture. It was meant to be a free-standing piece without the cross. That’s why I feel it has a very contemporary appeal, not your traditional crucifix. As a matter of fact, the work was produced by Bernini for his own keeping… he had casted three, one was for his personal possession.

    As a successor of Michelangelo, Bernini was in the Baroque period creating works mostly for The Catholic Church. And you’re right, he designed some of the doors, plus many other works in St. Peter’s Basilica, and most prominently, the whole St. Peters Square.
    http://www.italian-architecture.info/ROME/RO-016.htm

    As for the cross, you’re right to point out it was a cruel form of punishment and execution… and yet through which comes redemption and newness of life.

    Thanks for suggesting Titanic. That ‘King of the world’ scene does foreshadow the sacrifice Jack would make at the end of the movie.

    Arti

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  2. I’d never seen this Bernini, Arti. There’s an element of timelessness that I can’t put my finger on when the wooden cross is removed. I’d no idea how often the pose is/was used in films.

    .
    nikkipolani,

    You’ll probably be spotting it now as you watch movies :).

    Arti

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  3. I always learn something new when I visit you and I appreciate it. This is very interesting.

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    Thanks Ellen… I’m sure you can think of some more to add to my list.

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  4. The sculpture seems to be a feat of physical impossibility. I can see why it would be so impressive in person, just beautiful, and so unusual without a cross.

    I confess I don’t notice things like you did in these movies, and no doubt you and the film professors in my department could also point out many more significant symbols. I can’t think of any others now, but I feel like they’re waiting in the wings. I’ll be watching for them. I wonder if there are any cruciforms in The Matrix.

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    Ruth,

    There might be other works like this, the crucifix without the cross, but just that this is the first one I’ve seen. I was very impressed by its contemporary look, considering it’s a 17th C. work.

    The movies here are ones that I feel the cruciform pose conveys something fresh and meaningful. I could think of a few others, but they may not be congruent with the idea behind the original crucifix. An example: The execution scene in Dead Man Walking.

    Also, there are movies that are saturated with religious references, but I feel they’re more for entertainment appeal. The Matrix comes to mind. The use of overloaded religious parallels might just have trivialized their very meaning and significance. I don’t recall a cruciform pose there, in the first one anyway. But I’ve read somewhere that in The Matrix Revolutions a cruciform pose could be seen in the final fight scene between Neo and Smith.

    Arti

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  5. I always appreciate your ability to bring together the arts, particularly since I’m so film-ignorant. I’ve only seen two of those you’ve shown here, although I did have to smile at ds’ reference to Titanic. I haven’t seen that movie, either, but who could escape the ubiquitous posters and advertisements? Even I thought of that scene!

    One thought does cross my mind. Bernini’s sculpture makes visible the truth contained in the old saying: nails could not have contained him, had love not held him there. It was not human force but divine volition that led to the crucifixion – a truth as mysterious and beautiful as Bernini’s sculpture.

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    Linda,

    Thank you for the poignant reminder. This thought never occurred in my mind as I wrote the post until your comment. Of course, the invisible cross does convey such a powerful theme, that it was purely a volitional act of love that kept Christ there. Thank you so much for sharing that!

    Arti

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