Inside the Masterpiece: “Majestat Batllo”

Perhaps the most important work of medieval Catalonian art, this monumental crucifix is particularly astounding for its intricate painting.  Understandably, it is more difficult for wooden sculptures to survive the centuries rather than their stone-carved counterparts.  Painted wood is even less likely to last, due in a large part to the absence of quality varnish to seal the colors (used in paintings), or in some cases any varnish.  So a polychrome masterpiece such as this one is all the more impressive, and rare to find.

“Majestat Batllo”

(mid-12th century)

To begin with, the clothing on the Christ figure is as exotic as it is striking.  It is called a colobium, an ankle-length tunic that has been a part of Christian symbolism since at least 586, when an image of it appears in a Syriac gospel book written by a monk named Rabbula in Mesopotamia (now on display at the Laurenziana Library in Florence).  This illumination is particularly important to the history of Christian art, because it is the first image of Christ on the cross, and yet both still alive and apparently unsuffering.  Christ in a colobium (a linen tunic) appears most often in illuminated manuscripts, but for reasons not entirely clear among scholars, Catalonian sculptors over the 12th century took to creating monumental wooden crucifixes decked out in colobia.  The colobium was a simple linen garment worn traditionally by kings during the coronation ritual, during which they would humble themselves in this ordinary garment, before assuming the regal attire as king.  Christ’s colobium in this sculpture likely refers to him as “King of the Jews,” as he was accused of claiming while on trial in Jerusalem.  At the top of the cross were the letters “INRI,” an abbreviation for “Iesvs Nazarenus Rex Ivdaeorum” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).  It was not illegal to practice Judaism under the Roman Empire, but it was illegal to engage in political activities related to religion that might cause disruption.  Therefore in order for Jesus to have been found guilty at trial, the prosecution (led by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders who saw the charismatic Jesus as a dangerous competitor) had to prove that he was involved in a political conspiracy—claiming that he was the king, a political role that could result in an uprising, was grounds for execution.  Therefore Christ as a king in the humble garment of coronation, while unusual in the history of art, is theologically rational.

Why is this “humble” garment on the Battlo Majestat so lavishly colored and decorated?  It may be an homage to the Muslim influence in the area, as the colors of Christ’s colobium in this crucifix are reminiscent of Islamic drapery, and Arabic script may actually be seen on the hem of the garment if you look closely.  There are over thirty such works, all called majestats, of which this example, originally from Olot near Girona, is the best known and best-preserved.

One of the striking elements of this sculpture is Christ’s indifference to his suffering.  He lives, either feels no pain or stoically ignores it, seemingly quite content on the cross.  At the same time, he is immobile, weightless, floating on the cross.  The detailed design on the colobium is reminiscent of historiated initials in illuminated manuscripts.

This is perhaps the most interesting example of Romanesque sculpture in this museum that many scholars feel possesses the finest collection of Romanesque sculpture in the world.  But what do we mean by “Romanesque?”

Romanesque art refers to both a period and a style.  The period is roughly 1000 AD until the popularization of the Gothic style, in the 13th and 14th centuries, in Western Europe.  The term was first coined by 19th century architectural historians, as a way to refer to buildings from the Middle Ages which contained the basic architectural features of ancient Roman buildings, such as rounded arches and barrel vaults.  While Romanesque architecture is a direct descendant of Roman architecture, Romanesque painting owes its origins to Byzantine painting, popularized in Eastern Europe and Constantinople, which featured figures whose size related to their religious importance, and whose garments and facial expressions were stylized with simple strokes of paint, denoting basic emotions and folds of fabric.  In Western sculpture, the method for creating monumental cast bronze works was lost with the Fall of Rome, and would not be revived until the so-called “Lost Wax Method” was re-discovered and used by artists such as Donatello, in the 15th century.  Romanesque sculpture tends to be stone relief carvings, ornate column capitals, or wooden or plaster life-size works, such as this crucifix.  The sculpted figures were painted with the characteristics of Romanesque painting—little attempt made at realism, basic emotions projected through strong painted lines and garment folds.  What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in heart, soul, and passion.

Majestats such as this one seem to have been part of a popular Christian cult that sprung up in the 10th century.  The backs contained Agnus Dei and animal symbols of the four evangelists.  Majestats may have hung from the rafters near the entrances to churches, because many have painted backs which would also have been visible if displayed in this manner.  Alternatively, they may have been used in ceremonial processions.  The use of these Catalan majestats remains a mystery.

Noah Charney is a best-selling author and professor of art history.  This is an excerpt from his series of guides to the best art of the museums of Spain, published by geoPlaneta and soon to be released as an App.  This entry appears in the Barcelona guide.

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