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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