Iconoclasm is a genuine recognition of the power of the work of art. Nigel Halliday


Manzu, Giacomo - VM - Jonathan Evens

Giacomo Manzù: Crucifixion with General and Cardinal

One with the Victims of Violence

by Jonathan Evens

Giacomo ManzuÌ€ experienced both the support and censure of the Roman Catholic Church in relation to his work. The key debate over twentieth century ecclesiastical commissions concerned the extent to which the ‘secular masters’ of the day should be commissioned by the Church. ManzuÌ€, as a cradle Catholic whose father was sacristan of Sant'Alessandro in Colonna, Italy, gained such commissions from an early stage in his career but, as his anti-Fascist and Communist political convictions developed, found his work censured by the Roman Catholic Church.

For the traditional wing of the Catholic Church he became an emblem of all that was opposed to the Church, whilst still using Christian iconography in his work. Later he found support for his work in Pope John XXIII. The by-now atheist sculptor became the personal friend of and sculptor for Pope John, creating the masterful Doors of Death for St Peter’s Basilica.

Manzu’s story illustrates well the tensions inherent in the Church’s somewhat tentative and conflicted engagement with modern art. Crucifixion with General and Cardinal, a bronze bas-relief with incised, scuffed, scratched and scraped surfaces that mirror the violence of the torture scene depicted, is indicative of the imagery which drew a censure on his work from the Catholic Church.

In the spring of 1939 Italy was drifting helplessly towards the terrors of war and ManzuÌ€ had begun to think of Christ as a partisan brother to those being targeted by Fascists and Nazis. He began a series of bas reliefs entitled ‘Christ in Our Humanity’ in which Nazi soldiers replaced Romans at the foot of the Cross and Christ was depicted as a naked victim. Both the anti-Fascist imagery and the nudity were attacked, when this series was first shown in Milan. The Holy Office described his nudes as ‘filthy’. A post-war showing of these works in 1947 provoked an even greater outcry.

ManzuÌ€’s work is part of a strand in modern sacred art, which viewed Christ’s sacrifice as emblematic of human suffering and explored this theme in expressionist forms. Works in this vein were often controversial as they challenged sentimental images of Christ and deliberately introduced ugliness into beautiful buildings.

For Paul Tillich, writing in Theology of Culture, it was ‘the rediscovery of the expressive element in art since about 1900’ that ‘made religious art again possible.’ He noted that the expressive element in art was able to represent an ‘original encounter with reality below its surface’ and as a result is ‘adequate to express religious meaning directly, both through the medium of secular and through the medium of traditional religious subject matter.’ ‘For the expressionists generally art and religion were closely intertwined, as both involved surrender to an inner, spiritual energy and a preoccupation with the human soul.’

Tillich’s reflections are directly applicable to ManzuÌ€’s work, but also explain why those of a traditional bent reacted with censure and condemnation. Exaggeration and distortion were among the tactics necessary to get below the surface and express reality. Such distortions were often considered blasphemous when applied to the image of Christ.

In ManzuÌ€’s work this came combined with an ambiguity in relation to depictions of church figures. So, in Crucifixion with General and Cardinal, the general gestures across the foot of the cross towards the cardinal on the right. Is this an indication of complicity between them or a gesture ushering the cardinal away from the cross? ManzuÌ€ deliberately renders their relationship uncertain and this ambiguity extends to other depictions of cardinals.

The conical shape formed by cardinals in their robes and mitres fascinated ManzuÌ€, who sculpted images of seated cardinals throughout his career, saying he was attracted by the ‘majesty of their form.’ Yet there is a cover-up inherent in this series as the figures are indivisible from their garments and facial features are often undefined and blank. These are images of men who have been enveloped by their robes and role to the extent that they exude no sense of distinct personality.

Christ by contrast is naked, indicating both his victimhood and open honesty. By seeking to draw the Church back to an understanding of Christ as one with the victims of violence, Manzù was making a prophetic statement. At the same time he also revealed the ambivalence of his relationship with a Church that both employed and condemned him.


Giacomo Manzù: Crucifixion with General and Cardinal, 1951, bas-relief, bronze. Courtesy: Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, Italy.

Giacomo Manzù: Large Seated Cardinal, 1983, gilded wood, 205 cm. Courtesy: Galleria d’Arte Maggiore, Bologna, Italy.

Giacomo Manzù (1908-1991) is known for his delicate and moving work focusing predominantly on portraiture and religious imagery. Although apprenticed to various craftsmen from an early age, Manzù was largely self- taught. Key influences on his style include the sculptors Auguste Rodin and Medardo Rosso. In the late 1930s Manzù began his renowned series of cardinals, sculpting his sitters enveloped in their liturgical vestments. At this time, he also made a series of bas-reliefs on the theme of the Crucifixion, which were also passionate and unflinching indictments of Nazi-Fascist violence. After the war Manzù established himself as one of Italy’s foremost sculptors of religious subjects but, like his contemporary Emilio Greco, was drawn as much to the sensual world as to that of the spirit. Giacomo Manzù: Sculptor and Draughtsman is at London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art until 3 April 2016.

Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for Partnerships at St Martin-in-the-Fields and Priest-in-charge at St Stephen Walbrook, a City of London church which works in partnership with St Martin’s. He is also a director of Sophia Hubs Limited and secretary to commission4mission. Before being ordained Jonathan worked in the Civil Service forming partnerships to support disabled people in finding or retaining work. He is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief.

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 28, 2016