DEBILITATIO CHRISTI: A CONTRIBUTION TO THE ICONOGRAPHY
OF CHRIST IN DISTRESS
At the close of the XIVth century an image was created showing the sorrowful exhausted
Christ when seated on a stone or on the not yet elevated Cross in the attitude that for a long
time was used in art to express sadness. It is called Christus in der Rast, Christus im Elend,
Christ in Distress, Dieu de Pitie, Chrystus Frasobliwy.
Having been a precise and suggestive visualization of the rich content of the cult of the sor-
rowful Christ this image sińce the 2nd half of the XVth century has enjoyed a great popularity1,
which in certain countries, in Poland for example, has not been extincted up to the present days.
This representation is generally considered as a devotional one.2 However, an explanation of
its origin and meaning was scarcely corroborated with literary evidence. Such an approach was
largely due to the fact that in studies on mediaeval iconography the concept of a devotional
image was moulded under a conviction (taken by the students somewhat a priori) that no writ-
ten contemporary evidence is preserved to explain the genesis and content of certain new subjects,
having appeared in art sińce the XIII th century onward. I mean the subjects, which — even
if seemingly non-historical—were nevertheless closely connected with the historical events, the
Passion and the death of Our Lord.
The aim of the present study is to point to a literary tradition which gave birth to the image
under discussion.3 Selected texts, cited below, can throw a new light on the meaning of the theme
of Christ in Distress and, perhaps, even change the present understanding of it.
Ali these texts lead us to the last stage of the via dolorosa, called in mediaeval Latin ductio
ad locum crucifixionis, to say, to the episodes directly preceding the Crucifixion.
In their lapidary narrative of the Passion the four Evangelists are silent about these episodes.
But sińce the men of the Middle Ages wished to know all circumstances of the mission of Christ,
theologians tried to reconstitute them, to establish the succesion of all episodes of the Passion,
basing themselves mainly on the patristic writers.
An important exponent of the XIII th and XIV th cent. opinions on the Passion is the trea-
tise of Jordan of Quedlinburg.4 A high appreciation of its value by the contemporaries is testified
by the fact that Ludolf of Saxony (c. 1300—1378) has included this work at fuli Iength into his
1. Johannes Molanus,De historia SS. Imaginum et Picturarum, Lovanii, 1570: Imago Christi super pelram sedcntis, quae uleun •
que frequens est in ecclesiis, non habet teslimonium in scriptura sacra, non dubito tamen ąuin alicundo et pie et probal>iliter
2. Gert von der Osten, „Christus im Elend, ein niederdeutsches Andachtsbild", Westfalen, XXX, 1952, p. 185 — 198; the sa-
me author, Christus im Elend (Christus in der Rast) und Herrgotts^uhbild, [in:] Reallexikon zur deulschen Kunstgeschichle,
III, Stuttgart, 1954, p. 644 — 658; L. Reau, Iconographie de Varl r.hreticn. Noureau Testament, Paris, 1957, p. 469 — 471;
A. Thomas, „Rast unseres Herrn (Christus im Eleni, Christus inder Ruhe)" [in:] Lexikonfiir Theologie und Kirche,vol.Hlt
1963, p. 998; J. J.M. Timmers, Symboliek en ikonographie der Christelijke Kunst, Roermond-Maaseik, 1947, Nr 551 —2; Z. Kru-
szelnicki, ,,Ze studiów nad ikonografią Chrystusa Frasobliwego," Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, XXI, 1959, p. 307 — 328.
3. F.P. Pickering, Literatur und darstellende Kunst im Mittelalter, Berlin, 1966. p. 146 — 192, has shown how the only Word
of the Gospel — crucifererunt — had formed in literaturę and art the theme of the Crucifixion.
4. Jordanus Saxo de Quedlinburg, Passio Christi..., Basel, c. 1492, for a list of his works and a hrief discussion see J.F.
Ossinger, Bibliotheca Augusiiana..., Ingolstadii, 1768, p. 800 — 801.