The Man of Sorrows

In cell 26 of the Convent of San Marco, given by the Medici to the Dominican order, is another image adapted directly from medieval tradition. Standing in the sepulchre, Christ displays his wounds. (‘All this I suffered for thy sake / say Man what suffered thou for me?’ asks the Jesus of the York mystery plays.) All around him are the symbols of the events of the passion: the pieces of silver, the betrayal with a kiss, Peter’s denial, the mocking and flagellation, the sponge and the lance.

The Mater Dolorosa (in the spirit of the Stabat Mater) is in contemplation to one side, St Dominic, with the Book of the Gospels in hand, is gazing at the image from the other. Nothing could make plainer the purpose of these frescoes, in every cell of the convent.

They are the very reverse of art for art’s sake; they are art for salvation’s sake.

This traditional representation of the Man of Sorrows is to be found in almost every late medieval book of hours, and with the advent of printing was issued on pious broadsheets, together with a declaration of the indulgences available to those who contemplated it worthily and recited the required prayers.

It is moving to find, in this convent of an order already noted for its intellectual distinction, such an image of popular piety. Too often the academic theologians of our own day grow to despise the more affective piety of the plebs sancta Dei, the holy common people of God.

Mark Stevens