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The Hood Museum of Art’s Passion of Jesus in Jerusalem Woodcuts and the Promise of Interior Pilgrimage

Hood Quarterly, spring/summer 2011
Jane Carroll, Assistant Dean of the Faculty, Senior Lecturer in Art History, Dartmouth College

These prints will be featured in an exhibition in Harrington Gallery titled Envisioning Jerusalem: Prints from Dürer to Rembrandt (April 9 to June 19, 2011), which was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by the Frank L. Harrington 1924 Exhibition Fund.

Plague, war, and piety contributed to the popularity of Christian pilgrimage during the late Middle Ages. If one’s life could be cut short by crusade or disease, it was wise to ensure the purity of the soul. Already in the fourth century Saint Jerome had proclaimed the need for pilgrimage, but the full blossoming of the practice seems to have been spurred by the turmoil of the twelfth century and beyond. Pilgrims, journeying alone or in groups, traveled to local shrines or to distant sites such as Santiago de Compostella, Rome, or Jerusalem. Yet most believers, whether cloistered, laboring, or infirm, could not make the arduous trip and required an alternative to the physical expedition. For such Christians, an interior pilgrimage could be made.

The two remaining sheets of what must have been a twelve-folio print, purchased by the Hood in 2009, represent an aid for such an interior pilgrimage of personal devotion. The woodcuts, each measuring about 11 by 7 inches, depict episodes in the cycle of Christ’s Passion as it plays out across a roughly topographic depiction of the city of Jerusalem. With their identifiable locations, the Hood sheets may represent the earliest known attempt in Western art to correctly render the Holy City in a printed image. Recognizable landmarks, such as the Holy Sepulcher or the structure identified as the Temple of Solomon, were carefully delineated and labeled with xylographic inscriptions in a German dialect found in the Lower Rhine area. The use of vernacular language, rather than Latin, indicates a desire to reach an audience beyond the clerical. The inscriptions are both organizational and didactic, as they helped the viewer navigate the complex composition while differentiating important locations for those who would never make the journey to Jerusalem.

The Passion sheets can be dated to the third quarter of the fifteenth century on the evidence of their watermarks and production techniques. The Hood prints are remarkable examples of early woodcuts. This process of duplication used an inexpensive wood block, which reduced the price of the images and made them more readily available to a wide audience. The putative date also places them at the beginning of the printing revolution, when moveable type and a rising middle class meant an increasing demand for books and images.Yet the woodcuts are unique for this period in the scale of their composition and the scope of their imagery. The complete work may have measured as much as 40 by 40 inches, a size that suggests that the woodcut sheets were meant to be pasted together and publically displayed, perhaps on the walls of monasteries or churches. In fact, the assembled work would have been one of the largest prints of its time and thus an object of public amazement.

In subject matter, the prints reflect the fifteenth-century popularity of pilgrimage narratives. They present an intricate narrative system within which multiple sites appear simultaneously across the surface like a complex stage set. Nestled within those notable sites were key scenes of the Passion as well as more unusual incidents, including Christ before Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jews, and Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, washing his hands. By depicting the extended Passion in this spatial arrangement, the artist of these prints allowed viewers to more fully immerse themselves in Christ’s suffering. This type of Imitatio Christi, or Imitation of Christ, was encouraged by the Franciscans who had attended to Jerusalem pilgrims since the fourteenth century. They ritualized the contemplation of Jesus’s human suffering, asserting that such exercises allowed the believer to enter an empathetic relationship with the Holy.

Like the external pilgrims, internal ones could lose their way. Marking the correct printed path were areas of hand coloring and inscriptions; like the markers followed by wandering pilgrims, these guideposts allowed the medieval viewer to move sequentially through the last days of Christ’s life on earth. As believers contemplated these images, their theoretical pilgrimage would promise the same transformative and salvific power as that of their journeying counterparts. Instead of walking a dusty road, these pilgrims would use prayer and meditation to accomplish the same inner spiritual journey of healing, cleansing, penance or gratitude. If life was to be understood as a metaphorical journey toward redemption, the Hood prints illustrate the steps one could take to reach that Heavenly Jerusalem and its promise of salvation.

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