(Cristo Risorto)

The character of Christ is so many-sided that when trying to fancy how he looked while he lived in the world, everyone has probably a different thought uppermost. The business man and the lawyer may imagine the keen, searching glance which he turned upon those who tried to entangle him with hard questions. A loving woman thinks rather of the compassionate look with which he greeted the sisters of Lazarus when they came to tell him that their brother was dead. The physician may wonder how he looked when he spoke the commanding words to those whom he healed.

Others dwell upon his sufferings as the Man of Sorrows, and often think how sad he looked when he referred to the disciple who should betray him. Lovers of nature like to imagine the look of pleasure on his face in seeing the lilies growing in the field, or the expression of eager inquiry with which he asked the fishermen what luck they had had. Every boy and girl likes best to think of him smiling upon the children, whom he called to him and took in his arms.

Now when an artist makes an ideal representation of Christ, he tries to show us as many as possible of these elements of character combined in one figure. So we may test the success of Michelangelo's statue of Christ by searching out these various elements in it. We must also know what incident the artist had in mind of which the work is an illustration, so to speak.

The statue is called in Italian Cristo Risorto, that is, Christ Risen or Triumphant, because the reference is to a circumstance not recorded of his earthly career, but belonging to the time following his resurrection. It is connected with a story told by St. Ambrose about the apostle Peter. St. Peter, it is believed, spent the latter part of his life in Rome, where the cruel emperor, Nero, was doing his best to exterminate the Christians.

"After the burning of Rome, Nero threw upon the Christians the accusation of having fired the city. This was the origin of the first persecution, in which many perished by terrible and hitherto unheard-of deaths. The Christian converts besought Peter not to expose his life, which was dear and necessary to the well-being of all; and at length he consented to depart from Rome. But as he fled along the Appian Way, about two miles from the gates, he was met by a vision of our Saviour, travelling towards the city. Struck with amazement, he exclaimed, 'Lord! whither goest thou?' (Domine, quo vadis?) to which the Saviour, looking upon him with a mild sadness, replied, 'I go to Rome to be crucified a second time,' and vanished. Peter,taking this for a sign that he was to submit himself to the sufferings prepared for him, immediately turned back, and reëntered the city."[17]

[17] From Mrs. Jameson's Sacred and Legendary Art, pages 200, 201.

CHRIST TRIUMPHANT. Church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
CHRIST TRIUMPHANT. Church of S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.

It is this visionary figure of the Christ, appearing and disappearing before the eyes of Peter, that Michelangelo represents in the statue. He carries a cross not large enough for an actual crucifixion, as that would be out of place here, but tall enough to show its real purpose. He has also the long reed and the sponge which the soldier used to give him a drink of vinegar and gall when he thirsted on the cross. A bit of rope is a reminder of the scourging given him by the governor.

All these things he carries with him to Rome for a fresh martyrdom. It is as if in walking along the way he suddenly meets Peter, and, at the apostle's astonished question, he pauses, leaning a moment on the cross, as he turns gently to reply.

Now as this is the Christ risen, or triumphant, the Christ who has conquered death and the grave, Michelangelo wanted to do all he could to make a noble-looking figure. The face is of the handsome type, with regular features, which the Italians like to give to their ideal of Christ. The expression of reproach is so gentle that one deserving rebuke may well feel ashamed before it.

The sorrow in the face is such as Jesus might have shown as he turned to Judas at the Last Supper. The gentleness in it is of the quality so attractive to children. There is, too, something of the sympathetic element in it which Mary and Martha found.

The countenance is not without intellectuality, though it scarcely shows the keenness which the lawyers found it hard to outwit. It has rather the refinement of a lover of all that is beautiful. Nor is there much in expression or attitude to suggest the more commanding qualities of Jesus. These stronger elements the statue seems to lack.

It is rather puzzling to one who is trying to form standards of taste to learn that critics are divided in their opinion about this statue. It is, therefore, well to know that Michelangelo is not wholly responsible for the work as we now see it. Though he designed and began it, he left it to some unskilful apprentices to finish. The effect of the lines is injured by the bronze drapery which was added later. A bronze sandal has also been put on the right foot to protect it, as it had become much worn by kisses.

In criticising a statue one must always remember that it is best seen in the surroundings for which it is designed. It is said, even by one who does not greatly admire Michelangelo's Christ, that in the dim light of the church where it stands, "it diffuses a grace and sweetness which no reproduction renders."[18]

[18] Symonds, in Life of Michelangelo Buonarotti.