Easter 1547: a warlord repents

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Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and Martin Luther kneeling at the feet of Christ on the cross. Woodcut, 1555. Wellcome Library no. 567391i. Public domain.

Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, and Martin Luther kneeling at the feet of Christ on the cross. Woodcut printed by Hans Lufft, 1555.  Wellcome Library reference no. 567391i. Photo: public domain.

Easter provides a time for considering the significance of the gospels’ accounts of the last days of Jesus Christ: the sequence of crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. The woodcut above shows Martin Luther on the right and his protector Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony on the left: both kneel in prayer in immediate proximity to the crucified Christ. While the positioning of the cross, in a hole on the turf between them, signifies the alliance of the two famous Protestants, the depiction of Christ on the cross is conventional, as is the medium (woodcut with letterpress).

Christ ascending the cross. Etching by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1547. Wellcome Library, London, no. 2020587i. Public domain.

Christ ascending the cross. Etching by Augustin Hirschvogel, 1547.
Wellcome Library reference no. 2020587i.

In contrast, this 1547 print by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is anything but conventional. To start with, it is an etching, a technique little used for printmaking at the time: it is the ideal technique for reproducing a rapidly-executed pen and ink drawing. [1] Its content is unusually explicit. We are standing on a clifftop above the Danube, looking towards a small town on the far bank. Near us, a monumental cross has been erected, and the strapping figure of Christ is about to make his way up it on a ladder. No Roman soldiers are forcing him up the ladder or nailing him to the cross. Christ is carrying a grisly burden: the devil, a skeleton representing death, and a woman representing sin. The skeleton and the woman perhaps represent Adam and Eve, the first people to die and sin. With one foot on the ladder, he prepares to carry them up the ladder on his shoulders, like a firefighter in reverse.

The etching illustrates the theory of Substitutionary atonement, by which Christ voluntarily substitutes himself as a victim, like a whipping boy or scapegoat, for the failings of humanity. There is a subclass of this doctrine, called Penal substitution, which was adopted by Luther and Calvin. North Italian painters of the 13th and 14th centuries had depicted Christ being helped up a ladder on to the cross [2], but the present print seems to be the only representation of this theory, at least in German-speaking lands.

Hirschvogel’s rapid drawing may have been suggested by 1 Peter 2:24—”He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness”. However, Hirschvogel was not the designer, for he was acting on commission from a client, another Peter. His client was the warlord Péter Perényi, Fürst Perényi de Siklós (1502-1548). He was a Hungarian landowner and politician involved in the wars of the time between the Turks and the two rivals for the throne of Hungary, King John I Zápolya and King Ferdinand I, Archduke of Austria. Perényi was a fickle ally: none of the actors in this tri-partisan conflict could ever be sure which side Perényi was supporting at any time. Eventually the Hapsburgs captured him, and Ferdinand had him imprisoned in Vienna, where he could do no more damage.

According to the funeral address by Fabricius Szikszai on the death of Péter Perényi’s son Gabriel in 1567, Péter Perényi, while in his prison cell in Vienna, turned his mind from slaughter to religion, and “collected together the more notable stories from the Old and New Testaments, most suitably matched against each other, and arranged for them to be portrayed most expertly by the hand of a painter whom he maintained for this purpose. These pictures, not lacking in the beauty of Italian finesse, are now available”. [3] So Perényi devised the iconography; then the artist Augustin Hirschvogel visited him in prison to receive his instructions and sketch them out; and finally Hirschvogel went away to etch the approved design on copper plates for printing. This print in the Wellcome Library is one of the etchings commissioned from Hirschvogel by Perényi.

The face of Christ in Hirschvogel’s print is also not a typical portrayal. Is it a portrait of Perényi carrying the bodies of his victims to the site of his repentance? Considering his plight in captivity, the world-weary tyrant could sympathize with the words of Saint Paul to the Galatians (VI.14), “Mihi mundus crucifixus est, et ego mundo”: the world is crucified to me and I to the world.

[1] David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, 1470-1550, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, pp. 323-347

[2] A. Eörsi, ‘Haec scala significat ascensum virtutum. Remarks on the iconography of Christ mounting the cross on a ladder’ in Arte Christiana 780 (84, 1997), pp. 151-166

[3] Karsten Falkenau, Die “Concordantz Alt und News Testament” von 1550: ein Hauptwerk biblischer Typologie des 16. Jahrhunderts illustriert von Augustin Hirschvogel, Regensburg: Schnell u. Steiner, 1999, pl. 59b (“Kreuzbesteigung Christi mit Sünde und Tod”) pp. 87-88 and p. 18 (“Historias Veteris et Novi Testamenti insigniores colligebat, appositissimeque inter se comparatas, pictoris quem ad hunc usum alabat manu scitissime curabat efformari … quae quidem picturae venustate italicae subtilitatis non carentes, nunc quoque extant”)

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