In The Bowels of Christ

In episode 8 of the Bizzarro Bazar web series, I showed a very special piece from my curio collection: a 17th-century wax crucifix, whose abdomen is equipped with a small door revealing the internal organs of Jesus.
In presenting it I used the most widespread definition for this kind of artifacts, namely that of “anatomical Christ”. I briefly summarized its function by saying that the allegorical intent was to demonstrate the humanity of the Redeemer right down to his bowels.

Some time before recording that episode, however, I had been contacted by art historian Teodoro De Giorgio, who was conducting the first accurate census of all existing crucifixes of this kind. During our meeting he had examined my ceroplastic specimen, kindly promising to let me know when his study was published.

His research finally appeared in August on the Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, one of the oldest and most prestigious journals of international art history. The essay’s translated title reads: “The Origins of the Iconography in Visceribus Christi. From medieval influences of cordial devotion to the modern representation of the bowels of Christ“.

And here is the surprise: the fascinating analysis that Prof. De Giorgio has conducted refuses both the denomination of “anatomical Christ” and the function of the object as I exposed it, based on the few existing studies.
Instead, his essay reveals how these wax crucifixes were invested with a much deeper symbolic and theological value, which I wish to summarize here. (Note: although the paper is accompanied by a generous photographic apparatus, out of respect for the owners’ image rights I will only include in this article photos of my crucifix.)

De Giorgio’s study includes and minutely describes the few existing crucifixes we know of: nineteen specimens in all, produced between the 17th and 19th centuries in southern Italy, most likely in Sicilian wax-making workshops.

To understand the complex stratification of meaning that links the image of Christ with his bowels exposed to the concept of divine mercy, the author first examines the biblical anthology. Here we discover that

in the Holy Scriptures the bowels are a powerful verbal image with a double meaning: figurative and real. The same term, depending on the context and the dialogic referent, can qualify both divine infinity and human finiteness. […] in the Septuagint, which is largely faithful to the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament, there is a substantial semantic homology between the Greek terms σπλάγχνα (viscera), καρδία (heart) and κοιλία (belly). At the core of this equivalence lies the biblical conception of mercy: “to feel mercy” is to be compassionate “down to one’s bowels” […] In Semitic languages, particularly in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, divine mercy shows not only a visceral significance, but also — and above all — a uterine value.

Through various examples from the Old and New Testament, De Giorgio shows this “visceral” mercy was thought to be a prerogative of both God and Christ, and how the womb was identified from time to time as a seat of divine compassion or as a metaphorical uterus representing God’s maternal care towards Israel. The heart and bowels – of God, of Christ – were therefore intended as a fountain of mercy quenching the believer’s thirst, a divine spring of love.

In the Middle Ages this concept took the form of a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which began to spread thanks to the celestial visions of some female mystics such as Saint Lutgardis, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrude of Hackeborn, Mechthilde of Helfta and Gertrude the Great.

In the tradition of the Latin Church an expression marks the mercy of Christ: in visceribus Christi [“in the viscera of Christ”]. With this Latin formula, […] the Christian implored Jesus Christ in order to obtain graces through his divine mercy. Praying in visceribus Christi meant weaving a privileged spiritual relationship with the Savior in the hope of moving his bowels of mercy, which he had fully manifested on the cross.

The Jesuits were among the first congregations to join the new cult, and the practice of directing the prayers to the Sacred Heart and to the bowels of Christ, and the author attibutes these particular wax crucifixes with abdominal flaps to the Society of Jesus. It was precisely in the 16th-17th century that the need to identify an adequate iconography for worship became urgent.

If the mercy of God revealed itself in all its magnificence in the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, who — as attested by the Gospels — harbored ‘visceral compassion’ towards humanity, there were very specific reasons for contemplating the Savior’s innards and in the 17th century, along with the growing freedom of representations of the Sacred Heart and a parallel progress in anatomical and physiological knowledge, the time was ripe to do so by making use of a specific iconography.

Pompeo Batoni, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1767), Chiesa del Gesù, Roma.

Yet the task did not go without dangers:

In European spiritual circles, especially those related to confraternity associations, other images had to circulate unofficially and be reserved for personal devotion or that of small groups of followers […]. The iconography in question must have seen the light in this climate of emotional and passionate popular fervor, which manifested itslef in many pious practices, and at the same time one of rational dissent of a part of the high ecclesiastical hierarchy, which saw in the adoration of the fleshy heart of Christ the seeds of the Arian heresy.

Far from being mere anatomical representations aimed at showing the Savior’s human suffering, the crucifixes had instead a much more important function, namely

to invite devotees, in the so-called ‘strong times’ (such as the Lenten season or during Holy Week, and in particular in the Easter Triduum or, even more, on Good Friday) or in times of need, to contemplate the bowels of mercy of the Savior by opening the appropriate door. Right there to His bowels prayers and supplications had to be addressed, right there the rite of the faithful kiss had to be carried out, and right there patches and cotton wool had to be placed, according to the customs of the time, to be kept as real contact relics. The iconography in question, which we can call in visceribus Christi, could only be formulated in the precise devotional context of the Jesuit society, linked to the sphere of brotherhoods. That was the appropriate place in which the veneration of the sacred bowels of Christ could be carried out, as such an explicit vision could cause the indignation of many, including ecclesiastics who were less theologically knowledgeable than the Jesuits or who were, more simply, weak-stomached. The choice of a small format, on the other hand, is understandable precisely because of the limited devotional scope of these waxworks, which were reserved for small groups of people or for private worship.

De Giorgio states that these crucifixes were not simply an “Ecce homo anatomicus“, but rather an instrument for directing prayers to the very source of divine mercy.

I for my part can add that they appeared in a period, the Renaissance, in which iconography was often aimed at reviving the mystery of the incarnation and the humanity of Jesus by means of a dramtic realism, for example in the so-called ostentatio genitalium, the representation of the genitals of Christ (as a child or on the cross).

Two wooden crucifixes attributed to Michelangelo (Cucifix of Santo Spirito and Crucifix Gallino).

Showing the sacrificed body of Christ in all its fragile nudity had the purpose of favoring the believers’ identification and imitatio of Christ, as devotees were invited to “nakedly follow the naked Christ“. And what nakedness can be more extreme than the anatomical disclosure?
On the other hand, as Leo Steinberg showed in his classic essay on the sexuality of Christ, this was also a way for artsits to find a theological foundation and justification for the figurative realism advocated by the Renaissance.

Thus, thanks to De Giorgio’s contribution, we discover that wax crucifixes in visceribus Christi hid a very dense symbolic meaning. Sacred accessories of a cult suspected of heresy and not yet endorsed by the hierarchies of the Church (the adoration of the Sacred Heart will be officially allowed only in 1765), these were secret objects of devotion and contemplation.
And they remain a particularly touching testimony of the perhaps desperate attempt to move to compassion — down to the “bowels” — that God who too often seems willing to abandon man to his own destiny.

All quotations (translated by me) are taken from Teodoro De Giorgio, “L’origine dell’iconografia in visceribus Christi. Dai prodromi medievali della devozione cordicolare alla rappresentazione moderna delle viscere di Cristo”, in «Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz», LXI, 2019, 1, pp. 74-103. The magazine can be purchased by contacting the Centro Di publishing house, at this link.

The Werewolf of Ansbach

It is estimated that over the course of only 300 years, from the 14th to the 17th century, up to 100,000 people were executed in Europe on the charge of being werewolves .
France and Germany especially found themselves under attack by these supernatural creatures, and in both countries the lycanthropy “epidemics” caused a real collective fear.
The werewolf could sometimes be the victim of a curse, but more often he was seen as a worshiper of Satan. Since turning into a wolf was considered the result of magical arts, lycanthropy trials fell into the wider phenomenon of witch-hunt.
Among historical accounts of werewolves, there is one in particular that is absolutely noteworthy.

In 1685 the Principality of Ansbach included the surroundings of the Bavarian town of the same name; here a wolf began attacking livestock. The threat suddenly became more serious when the animal killed several children within a few months.
The idea immediately spread that this was no normal wolf, but rather a werewolf — on whose identity there was little doubt: the detested Michael Leicht, Burgomaster of Ansbach (a figure halfway between a mayor and a ruler), had recently died after subjecting the town to its cruel and fraudulent yoke for many years.

It was rumored that this much-hated public officer had actually managed to escape death by transferring his spirit into the body of a wolf. Some swore they saw him attend his own funeral; a contemporary flyer shows Michael Leicht who, in the form of a wolf wrapped in a white-linen shroud, returns to his old apartment, scaring the new tenants.

Thus hunting the fierce wolf became an imperative not only in order to protect children from further carnage, but to free the city from the spirit of the Burgomaster still haunting those places, and to avenge years of harassment.

The hunters prepared a Wolfsgrube. This “wolf pit” consisted of a hole with stone walls, about three or four meters deep, covered with branches and straw, and it was used to trap wild animals. Pieces of raw meat were placed at the bottom of the well, and often a live bait was used: a sheep, a pig or a goose. The wolf, smelling the prey, would wander around the scrubs until it fell into the trapping pit.

In this case, the bait was a rooster. The wolf fell into the hole and was killed by hunters.
But what happened next is the really interesting part.

The carcass of the animal was paraded through the streets, to show the danger was over. The men had prevailed over the beast.
But since this was no ordinary wolf, a more grotesque spectacle was staged. After skinning the animal, the men severed its muzzle and placed on its head a cardboard mask with Leicht’s features; they dressed it with a wig and a cloak, and hanged the wolf by a gibbet erected on a nearby hill, so that it was clearly visible.

A poem from the time reads:

I, wolf, was a grim beast and devourer of many children
Which I far preferred to fat sheep and steers;
A rooster killed me, a well was my death.
I now hang from the gallows, for the ridicule of all people.
As a spirit and a wolf, I bothered men
How appropriate, now that people say:
“Ah! You damned spirit who entered the wolf,
You now swing from the gallows disguised as a man
This is your fair compensation, the gift you have earned;
This you deserve, a gibbet is your grave.
Take this reward, because you have devoured the sons of men
Like a fierce and ferocious beast, a real child eater. “

The punishment reserved for this demonic beast is subtler than it might seem, because it actually serves a double symbolic purpose.

On the one hand, depriving the wolf of his fur and replacing it with human clothes meant showing Satan himself that his tricks did not work. The townspeople of Ansbach were able to recognize the man concealing under the fur; this was therefore a warning, addressed to the Devil himself — this how your evil servants end up, around here! — and it had a clear apotropaic intent.

On the other hand, there was an undeniable political aspect. This was a “by proxy” execution of the former ruler; the commoners, who had failed to overthrow their oppressor while he was alive, did so post-mortem.
One may wonder: was this a warning to the new burgomaster, so that he would keep in line? Or was the new ruler himself behind this staging? Such a striking public show could be a good way for him to earn his subjects’ trust, a way of distancing himself from the tyranny of his predecessor.
In any case, the political message was clear, even for those who did not believe in werewolves: this act was meant to mark the end of a dark era.

As this episode demonstrates, we would be wrong to see lycanthropy trials as simple and blind mass hysteria, fueled by superstition. Even though they were a product of  fear in times of great epidemics, as well as economic, political and social instability, werewolf trials sometimes involved stratified levels of meaning which were far from being unintentional.
While courts condemned hundreds of people to be burned at the stake, intellectuals debated how it was possible for a man to turn into a wolf. And they were surprisingly quite aware that the problem lied in telling the legend from the truth.

For instance one of the most brilliant treatises on the subject, the Discourse on Lycanthropy (1599) by Jean Beauvoys de Chauvincourt, traces the origins of the werewolf in Greek mythology, spending several pages to discern between which ancient stories had to be considered simple allegories, and which ones could hide a kernel of truth.

But what exactly was this truth? What was going on during a lycanthropy episode? Can we in all rationality, wonders Beauvoys, believe that a man has the magical power of changing his physical form?
And then there was a more delicate question, of theological nature. How could Satan transform what God had created, replacing the Almighty in a sort of “second creation”? Crediting the Devil with such high power was inadmissible, since only God could turn water into wine, Lot’s wife into salt, or Moses’ rod into a snake.

In his treatise Beauvoys devises an extremely ingenious solution, a true marvel of balance to get himself out of the impasse.
Since endorsing the possibility of an actual man-to-wolf transformation would lead him dangerously close to blasphemous or at least heretical positions, he opts for a double demonic illusion.

The first illusion affects the werewolves themselves: Satan, “thanks to his pure and simple subtlety, by penetrating into their bodies and occupying their internal organs, becomes their true owner, and persuades them of what he wants. Troubling their imagination, he makes them believe they are brutal beasts, and infuses them with the same desires and attractions those animals have, up to the point that they begin having frequent carnal unions with those of their kind“. Thus the werewolf is nothing but a man, who has lost his way and got tricked by the devil; his body is not really covered in fur, his nails do not turn into claws nor his teeth into fangs. Everything just happens in his mind (an extraordinary idea, if you think that something close to psychiatry will only appear two centuries later).

Then, by administering ointments, eye drops, creams and powders to these slaves, the Devil is able to create hallucinations even in those who have the misfortune of meeting the werewolf: “such is the smell and the air so infected by this filth that they not only affect his patient, but they are so powerful as to act on the external senses of the audience, taking possession of their eyes; disturbed by this poison, they are persuaded that these transformations are real“.

Therefore on a more superficial level, the werewolf represents the danger of abandoning oneself to bestial instincts, of losing one’s own humanity; it is a moral figure meant to illustrate what happens when man turns away from the divine light, and it signifies a recession to barbarism, the loss of the logos.

But the most frightening and uspetting fact is that a werewolf confuses and overturns the common categories of meaning. According to Beauvoys, as we have seen, its condition is both supernatural (Satan is behind it all) and natural (no actual metamorphosis is taking place). Similarly, Ansbach’s wolf is deprived of its real skin, which is seen as a fake, and it is made to wear a mock human face, recognized as its authentic nature.

The werwewolf’s destabilizing power lies in this dimension of epistemological mystery — the werewolf is like a magic trick, an illusion; it is both true and false.