Artwork of many genres depicts Mary at the cross



Ancient to modern art has depicted Mary, the mother of God, standing at the cross.

The Rev. Dr. James Daprile focused on the topic, “Mary at the Foot of the Cross,” during a recent presentation at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 4500 Norquest Blvd. About 50 people attended.

Father Daprile is pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Aurora and previously was pastor at St. Brendan Church in Youngstown. In his 38 years as a priest, he has served the Diocese of Youngstown in academic and parish positions.

“Artists take liberties in depiction,” Father Daprile said. He noted Mary was probably a teenager when Jesus was born and would have been in her 40s or 50s at the time of his death. Some artists depict her as older and others don’t age her.

And, Father Daprile pointed out, the Gospel of John is “the only one that has Mary at the cross.” She is with the “beloved disciple,” John, the son of Mary’s sister and cousin of Jesus.

Because Passover was a family event, the priest said, it would have been natural for Mary, her sister and other family to be together.

“Artists give Mary an array of expressions,” he said. She faced the hardship of seeing her son condemned and die on a cross as a criminal.

In a Power Point presentation, Father Daprile showed various artwork, some graphic in its depiction of the crucifixion, some abstract and some liturgical.

“Some images give a real sense of suffering. Crucifixion was an offensive affair,” he said. “It deprived the person of dignity and was an exceptionally cruel punishment.”

Father Daprile said in the first few centuries, there were no depictions of the crucifixion. In reality, the person was naked but the priest said most artwork incorporates a “sense of modesty” with a cloth added.

“The brutality of the crown of thorns and nails might help people understand the horror of it,” he said. The person being crucified would die of asphyxiation.

Father Daprile mentioned George Rowan’s “Christ on the Cross,” a liturgical piece, that shows Mary in blue and John in red. There are two other figures but it’s not appararent who they are.

“In this, Jesus’ body isn’t mutilated. It is disconnected to the crucifixion,” he said.

In an early fourth-century marble piece, “Christ is not portrayed in agony ... there’s a sense of victory,” he said.

Another piece is more involved ... it shows Jesus with the banner “king of the Jews,” along with Mary and John, side by side. Also shown are Judas, the betrayer, and a soldier, the representative of government. Father Daprile said “the courage of Mary and John” comes through because they stand by Jesus.

Morbid depictions of the crucifixion are “closer to reality,” Father Daprile said. One example is John and Mary, in grief, at the cross. “Skulls and bones relay the true symbolism as the cross as an instrument of death,” he said.

An El Greco altarpiece shows Jesus in a regal pose as the turmoil goes on around him.

“Devotional pieces are usually not historically accurate,” Father Daprile said. “Artists don’t generally rely on religious convictions.”

“Christians have struggled with the cross,” the speaker said. He noted that in the Middle Ages, “Catholics were fixated with suffering and that’s how it was portrayed.” Protestant churches use the cross but no corpus.

“The depiction depends on the era and theological statement being made,” Father Daprile said. Mary was the mother of Jesus, the priest said, but some artwork also depicts her as a disciple.

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