Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Sunday Christ

As my friends Irini and Fotis mulled over whither Fotis really needed a Darth Vader helmet or a feather boa (sensible boy he bought neither) I wandered out of the Hollywood Costume Exhibition Shop at the Victoria and Albert into a small gallery next door. Though it is located a good deal away from the splendid Medieval Galleries it houses a few lovely pieces of religious art of mixed origins from the period. As often happens I focused in on one lovely piece of the carver's art.

This time the medium wasn't wood but alabaster and as is often the case with works of the period, this figure is dated circa 1500, the artist who created it is unknown. And until I saw this piece I must admit that the subject was unknown to me: The Sunday Christ.  The card in the case explained that this was a unique work probably from Southern England or Wales and was meant not as a devotional object but as an admonition to those who wounded Christ by working on the Sabbath.

Normally the figure of the Sunday Christ appears in paintings and frescoes, often larger than life, and seems to have been particular to southern England, Cornwall, Wales, and the Alpine regions of France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Slovenia and northern Italy.   Frequently situated at the entrance to a church the painting or fresco portrayed "The Man of Sorrows" acquainted not with grief but with the grievous wounds caused by the tools of workmen who had chosen not to "to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body."  In more than one representation the blood from the wounds have a particularly gory aspect which causes me to wonder why it didn't become the subject for more Southern artists who seem to revel in suffering with a capital "S".   It was hoped that in regarding the Sunday Christ (with or without the gore) the pious could find assurance that they were not amongst those re-crucifying Christ and the repentant would see what their act of impiety had led to.  I'm not sure what effect it would have on those who continued to work as they wouldn't have darkened the door step of the church to view the suffering their sinful behavoir had wrought.

Many of the tools that are inflicting wounds on The Sunday Christ are agrarian in nature - suggesting that this figure was carved as a warning to farm labourers in the surrounding district.  Which church it was created for is unknown as are the details of how it found its way to Portugal before being acquired by the V and A. 

There is a theory that in the wake of the Black Death the Holy days of obligation had increased to a point where if craftsmen, labourers and farmhands had abstained from work on all of the required days that nothing would have been done.  In many cases work was necessary, if crops were to be planted or brought in, buildings to be constructed or water to be drawn that work continue despite it being the Sabbath.  It was very much a case of "damned if you do, damned (or starved) if you don't". 

It is highly unusual for The Sunday Christ to be worked in stone or wood and this little figure is the only known representation in this form in England. The figure was probably stored in a shuttered tabernacle close to the door of the church and may even have been carried in processions on one of the many Feast Days or Days of Obligation.  Perhaps it was when viewed in those processions that the shame of working and inflicting new wounds on their Lord overcame those labouring and they threw down their tools and did their duty.

Thought I have been a trifle tongue in cheek about the purpose of this little figurine I can recall the time was here in Canada when Sunday was indeed a welcome day of rest.  And it was very much the same in our area of Roma and many places in Germany and Austria that we visited.  Sunday was a day to go to church, if you were so inclined, visit the family, stroll through the park or go to lunch with friends.  All of which fit perfectly in to the canonical command "to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body." and none of which would have contributed to the suffering of this little Christ figure.

30 December - 1919: Lincoln's Inn in London, England, UK admits its first female bar student.
Enhanced by Zemanta

1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I've never seen a Sunday Christ before. Gruesome!