Posts Tagged ‘King of the Jews’

Visual Literacy – 3

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

The so-called War on Christmas may be a fiction, but there is no doubting that contemporary Americans, even those you would expect to know better, are much less familiar with Christian iconography than in the past. I previously posted an idle observation on this subject, here.

A new example came to my attention this week, in an auction catalog posted online by an auction house in Connecticut. In the listings for the sale there is an item labeled, “TOMAS PENNING (1905-1982) CARVED CROSS.” It’s accompanied by several photos and the following description:

“Carved slate, marked NR above figure, Dimensions: H 36″ x W 22.5″ Condition: good”




Here’s one of the photos showing the segment above the figure:



One can suppose the cataloguer mentioned that two letters, NR, appear above the figure for some reason beyond mere diligence (it’s standard cataloguing practice to indicate for the benefit of remote bidders who can’t examine the object in person, all of the marks, initials, dates and other inscriptions found on it). But why mention just the N and the R?  Did the cataloguer not see within the rectangle the “I” before and the “I” after the letters NR? Was he or she not familiar with the four letter inscription, INRI, that appears in representations of the crucified Jesus? Was there no one around who knew the significance of the acronym INRI? That it comes from the Latin phrase ‘Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum’ — ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’?  That according to the crucifixion story in the Bible (John 19:19), this was a notice Pontius Pilate posted over the head of Jesus as he lay dying on the cross? That this imagery has been a part of our cultural conversation spanning centuries?

Two unforgettable examples:



Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), The Crucifixion, 1459 (detail)


Emile Nolde (1867-1956), Crucifixion, 1912