The Passion of Christ in Medieval Art

The Passion of Christ in Medieval Art

The Passion of Christ in Medieval Art

Discussion with Professor Miri Rubin

Interview Summary

Professor Miri Rubin discusses with Dr Brendan Devitt the significance of Christ’s passion in medieval art. Why were religious orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans keen that artists portray Christ’s sufferings? Where would medieval folk have encountered such paintings or sculptures? Why are depictions of Christ’s passion in the Eastern Church less gruesome than those in the West? Is there a connection between the emphasis on Christ’s death in medieval art and Christian attitudes towards Jews?

Key Words

Byzantine—style of culture, politics, religion, art, etc., emerging out of Byzantium, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire.

Church Council—a gathering of church leaders with the aim of defining Christian doctrine (most famously between the years 325-787AD).

Eastern Churches—reference to multiple Christian groups that emerged in the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor, The Far East, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Northeastern Africa and southern India.

Franciscans—name of those belonging to religious groups or orders that seek to live out the spiritual ideals of St Francis of Assisi (1181-1226AD).

Icons—typically refer to paintings of Christ, Mary, the Saints or angels that are venerated in Eastern churches.

Iconoclasm—the destruction of religious imagery (because is deemed to be idolatrous).

Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528AD)—German artist who painted graphic scenes of Christ’s crucifixion.

Middle Ages—the period from 1100-1500AD (though some scholars trace it back as far the 500AD).

Pogrom—a twentieth century term referring to an attack on a group or community.

‘Static portrait of Christ’—in the interview a reference to the fact that in the Eastern churches paintings or icons of Christ’s crucifixion preserve his majesty and dignity in the face of death (in contrast, it is often pointed out, with the paintings of the German artist Matthias Grünewald).

Transubstantiation—Roman Catholic doctrine that argues Christ’s literal body and blood are assumed under the form of the Eucharistic wafer and wine in the Mass.


Professor Miri Rubin is one of the world’s leading historians of medieval Europe. She studied in Jerusalem and completed a PhD at Cambridge. Professor Rubin has held academic posts in both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and is currently Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History at Queen Mary University of London. As well as appearing on television worldwide, she is a regular panelist on Radio 4’s flagship programme In Our Time, with Melvyn Bragg. Professor Rubin is also an international conference speaker, and has also appeared at the famous Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. She was recently president of the London Medieval Society (2012), is a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and Ecclesiastical History Society.

In addition to having publications in various academic journals and co-written books with other scholars Professor Rubin has an extensive bibliography that includes critically acclaimed works such as Charity and Community in Medieval Cambridge (1987); Corpus Christi: the Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (1991); Gentile Tales: the Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews (2004); The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages (2005); Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (2009); Emotion and Devotion: the Meaning of Mary in Medieval Religious Cultures (2009); A Very Short Introduction to the Middle Ages (2014); Thomas of Monmouth: the Life and Passion of William of Norwich (translation with an introduction, 2014).


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