Channel 4’s Crucifixion (Easter Sunday 2012) followed the creation of Gunther von Hagen’s controversial artwork: an intricate re-creation of Christ’s crucifixion. Injecting human bodies with a plastic resin, von Hagen then leaves the corpses to corrode in an acid bath until all that is left is a hardened plastic detail of the human vascular system. His exhibition, Body Worlds, exhibits the fruits of this ‘plastination’, from the plastic moulds of human and animal bones, to the intricate knots of capillaries and veins.
von Hagens ‘Plastination’ (Flickr orngejuglr)
Although his work has proved controversial, as Channel 4 keenly and repeatedly reminded us, his attempt to produce the suffering of Christ on the cross with both artistic and anatomic precision is fascinating, moving, and emotionally wrought. Despite understandable criticisms from the Church, von Hagen’s Crucifixion inherits a rich past of anatomic aesthetics. Damien Hirst’s current retrospective at the Tate Modern and especially his famous shark in formaldehyde captures some of this human fascination with death as a physical fact, with bodily presence and spiritual absence. Indeed, to give Hirst’s work its full title, ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living’ seems to have direct parallels with von Hagens’s own configurations of death:
von Hagens’s shark (The Telegraph)
Stretching further back in time, his crucifixion reminds me of a number of early modern engagements with body, soul, and Christ. In medieval Catholicism, it was possible to interact with the recently deceased, easing their passage through purgatory, purchasing Indulgences, and allowing long, ritual processes of cleansing and preparing the physical corpse for burial. Similarly, there was a long Catholic tradition of exhibiting Christ on the cross as both part of ars moriendi and ars memorativa, reminders of death and of Christ’s suffering. The physicality of such death was also mirrored the period’s drama, which staged the very crucifixion scenes that would even now be considered questionable. Medieval cycle drama staged the entirety of world history, from God’s creation of the universe to the apocalypse. In the Towneley cycle, Christ is crucified in the play, in front of all the spectators, ‘ffestynd both handys and feete / With nalys full vnmete, / his woundes wrynyng wete’. Far from a sensational indulgence in the gore of Roman torture, or what could now be dismissed as a publicity stunt, the power of literal representation was designed to provoke awe, wonder, and piety at Christ’s selfless suffering, ‘To see this prynce withoutten pere / Thus lappyd all in wo’. The physicality of medieval death was unsurprising, considering the ubiquity of mortality during the height of the plague. The famous Isenheim altarpiece contains the culmination of the very real physicality of dying and the deterioration of the flesh:
Panel from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (iBiblio)
These medieval practices were restricted under Protestantism, which saw the dead as immediately removed from the living and expressly forbade the idolatry of direct representation of holy events. Church rood screens, which so often exhibited ornate crosses, were torn down and destroyed during the waves of iconoclasm, especially in Edwardian England.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the power of the crucifixion disappeared, because the cross has always been central to Christianity and its representation, as Channel 4’s documentary showed us. Further, von Hagens’s plastinated corpses echo the precise and lifelike representations of the nervous system in early modern Europe. The master of anatomy Andreas Vesalius’s De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, for example, details every human capillary and vein while the corpses are presented in positions of emotion and suffering.
von Hagens’s creations are a beautiful and emotional addition to this artistic tradition; they dispel metaphysical fantasies about human transcendence and myths about our insides, reminding us that science cannot explain all of our thoughts and emotions. Yet, they also prompt us to marvel the magnificence of existence, in all its careful, intricate, and bloody brilliance, albeit in the lifelessness of plastic resin.