Rome’s Medieval Wooden Crucifix, Carved (?) by a Famous Mosaicist

Tucked away in a side chapel of a quiet church in the center of Rome, you’ll find this beautiful wooden IMG_5904crucifix. It is said to have been much visited by St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), which helps us to date it to the 14th century at the latest.

And that clue is relevant, because there is some uncertainty about the identity of the artist who carved it! Traditionally, it has been attributed to Pietro Cavallini, who died about 1330. So far as dating goes, that makes sense. But suggesting that Cavallini created it does not.

That’s because the great Cavallini was not a carver of wood; he was well known as both a mosaicist and a fresco-painter. Cavallini’s finest works are right here in Rome, and we often take clients to see (among other works) his jaw-dropping fresco of the Last Judgment, which was only rediscovered in the early 20th century, hidden under Cavallini frescoa layer of plaster and paint during a baroque “updating” of a church entrusted to Benedictine nuns. Here’s a small taste of that fantastic work, showing Saints Peter and John the Evangelist. Cavallini ‘s style is similar to that of Giotto, and both painters were instrumental in developing the art of painting in perspective: they learned to calculate how to paint an apparently three-dimensional image on a flat, two-dimensional surface. Note how Cavallini has angled the chairs in which the two Apostles are sitting, and managed to show their knees jutting out in front of their torsos–just as in real life!

If this were Cavallini’s only contribution to the world of art, he would already be regarded justifiably as a truly great artist. But fresco-Cavallini mosaicpainting was only one of his talents: Cavallini was also a skilled mosaicist. He had mastered the complex technique of cementing colored tiles and tiny glass blocks onto church walls, which is of course a totally different art-form from that of painting! And to top it off, Cavallini figured out how to show depth-perspective in his mosaics as well as in his frescos. Not far from the Benedictine convent containing Cavallini’s Last Judgment fresco is a massive basilica, which houses a whole series of mosaics that are undeniably his work. They depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and as you can see in this Annunciation, Cavallini applied his angling and calculations of depth to the field of mosaic-making, just as skillfully as he had done with his frescos.

It’s already quite unusual to find one man who was so adept in both of these fields of art! This is why the vague attribution of the wooden crucifix to the same man should give us pause. Could it really be true that an artist who had mastered both painting and mosaics was so gifted that he could carve beautiful 3-D figures out of wood as well? Or did someone in the Middle Ages decide that connecting a famous name to this crucifix would be a great way to give it more attention? So many centuries after the fact, it’s impossible to know.  We can only admire the artistry of whoever created this image of Christ suffering on the cross–and let it prompt us to meditate on His sufferings. And that was surely the original intent of the medieval artist who made it … whoever he was.