Expressions of the Faith sometimes emanate from unlikely places. The American artist George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) was known for his rugged boxing pictures, gritty cityscapes and elegant society portraits depicting the dynamic world of change in the early twentieth century. Raised by a strict Methodist family in Ohio, Bellows rebelled against his religious upbringing and developed strong sympathies for the socialist and anarchist movements. During the 1910s and ’20s Bellows and his wife Emma—a faithful and loving couple—hung with a circle of loose-living, left-wing Bohemian types in New York City. For Bellows, this orientation was the fruit of his concern for the social conditions of the people with whom he came into contact.
It came as a surprise to the art world when, in 1923, Bellows came out with a Crucifixion scene. Although not religious Bellows had great reverence for the classical Western artistic tradition, and it was this reverence which provided a gateway to one of the most striking religious paintings of the early twentieth century. Bellows’ Crucifixion recalls such old masters as El Greco (the colors and especially the stormy sky) and Tintoretto. The composition is arranged symmetrically, with Christ in the center and the two thieves flanking him but facing away so as not to detract from him. The figure of Christ expresses utter abandonment: his arms are outstretched and his head is turned up toward heaven. Undoubtedly Bellows is depicting the moment when Christ gave up his spirit to his Father. Christ is surrounded by an audience of witnesses, both men and women. In the background we see a pair of Jewish divines, who gaze upon the scene with shock and awe. A purple-robed female figure—probably St. Mary Magdalene—kneels in grief at Jesus’ feet, recalling the Gospel episode where she washed his feet with her tears. In the right foreground we see a nude male figure, a stand-in for fallen humanity, who covers his face in shame. In the left foreground stands a black-clad male figure who is possibly meant to be a soldier, although his costume looks strangely modern. Beside him stands a richly dressed woman who seems to have stepped out of the Renaissance. In the foreground kneels a prophetic-looking sympathetic male figure, perhaps Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea. The ink-blue sky is rent by the storm and earthquake that accompanied Christ’s death. The painting’s colors have a dark transparency like that of a stained glass window. Although reminiscent of the classical masters, the painting also looks modern in the geometrical and slightly abstract quality of the figures. This is a moody, powerful rendering of one of the most frequently depicted scenes in Christian art.
Bellows gained fame early in his career for paintings that depicted the brutal, cutthroat world of boxing, where toughened men attacked each other for profit and mass entertainment. (Some famous examples are Stag at Sharkey’s and Club Night.) A few years before painting The Crucifixion, Bellows had created a series of harrowing World War I pictures which chronicled man’s inhumanity to man during that terrible conflict. The experience of creating these paintings doubtless helped Bellows paint the harrowing death of the Son of God on the Cross.
The Crucifixion‘s immediate reception was mixed, with some commentators criticizing the artist’s overreliance on the old masters. Yet what Bellows’ critics counted as a weakness we can appreciate as a strength. Bellows has given us a modern American expression of one of the central mysteries of the Faith, showing a beautiful blending of tradition and innovation. The painting, housed in the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art in Minneapolis, was a stunning departure for George Bellows and reminds us that the sacred story is instantiated anew in every era and country.Tags » Catholic Art, Christian art, crucifixion