I recently visited the Yale University Art Gallery, one of the most notable collections of the East Coast and definitely among the best in New York's proximity. The museum is free to the public, an unusual feature in the United States, and this points out the ties with the university, hence its educative vocation. The visit path goes through a wide variety of objects, organised in geographical area. From the ancient Middle East to seventeenth-century Europe, passing through Asian and American art, the viewer will most certainly find more than one surprising object. Indeed, I could delve into Van Gogh, Velazquez, Rubens, Gerrit Dou and spend some pleasant hours just listing the masterpieces lined up on the walls. Yet, I have decided to dedicate this post to a far lesser-known (I guess somebody could even say lesser-notable) piece by the Roman sculptor Camillo Rusconi (1658-1728).
Crucified Christ – Camillo Rusconi – ca. 1690-1700 – gilded bronze
The object is a less-than-life-size statue of Christ, crucified and hung onto a wooden cross. The statue is made of gilded bronze, whose shining surface reflects the light and conveys a sparkling effect to the smooth body. The accurate modelling of the muscles and bones favours this effect, as light lingers among the creases of the skin and drapery, spreading through unexpected designs. The room were the object is kept is actually quite dark and the light system emphasises quite well the object's potential. One may be used to thinking of bronze statues as dark, covered in a brownish oil-based patina. Yet, while gazing at Rusconi's artwork, one understands that gilding can create extraordinary effects for objects that were probably displayed in a church or a chapel, dark spaces lit by flickering candles. The curator partially recreated this effect and the beauty of the object greatly benefits from the current setting.
The body of Christ is elegantly elongated and his back bends forward toward the viewer. The thin limbs stretch across the dark wooden cross, creating a sharp contrast between the opaque wood and the shimmering bronze surface. According to the traditional iconography, the head bends to the left, and the face is partially hidden by the profile view. Despite the gruesome nature of the crucifixion, the statue lacks of fierceness. The eyes are closed and the body already rests relaxed, rather than tense, in the silence of death. The hands are partially open, showing the nails, but they are not contorted or twisted as in more powerful depictions of the Passion (think of the gory Isenheim Altarpiece). The even gilded surface leaves little space to represents the wounds and scars that Christ earned on his way toward execution. The golden colour projects the coming triumph of the resurrection, leaving behind any doubt about the figure's divine nature. The iconography corresponds to the Christus patiens model but the overall effect is that of a Christus triumphans.
The statue was cast following the lost-wax process. From the Renaissance to nineteenth century, this was the standard casting technique used to produce bronze objects. On the other hand, there are several visual hints scattered across the gilded surface. Lost-wax casting is based on a wax model, put at the core of a clay matrix. When heated, the wax melts and flows out of the matrix, leaving a hollow space that liquid bronze can fill. To do so, a circulatory system made of wax is attached to the model in order to leave a path for the metal to follow when poured, hence filling the empty space and creating the statue. Often, it is possible to detect where the wax channels were attached onto the model. Bronze does not always flow evenly, creating imperfections in the cast. Moreover, when the statue is freed from the clay shield, the channels, now filled with bronze, have to be removed. This operation may leave circular holes, which are later repaired by the sculptor. Nevertheless, the mark remains visible. As a student of art history, I greatly enjoy looking for such signs. They are evidence of the material nature of art and the great expertise that generations of craftsmen and sculptors have put into the creation of beautiful artefacts.
The circular sign on the left is a channel reparation
Rusconi's Crucified Christ is a beautiful example of late-Baroque bronze statuary. Its shining beauty reflects a glorious understanding of the Christian faith, where death, the extreme moment of annihilation, is indeed the revelation of Christ in his glory. The Yale University Art Gallery hides several beauties like this one, masterpieces whose importance has not necessarily been established by a consistent scholarly interest but by the evidence of their quality and aesthetic aura. The visitor is asked to contemplate, overwhelmed.