Tracing the lineage of Doris Caesar’s sculpture about mourning to the sorrowful sacred art of centuries past
For millennia artists have manipulated the shapes of brow lines, corners of mouths, and postures of heads to convey the suffering of sacred human figures. But why? Perhaps because depicting emotion can spark emotion. It can inspire empathy and allow the faithful viewer to bond intimately with the image of a holy figure, enabling them to find greater meaning in whatever sentiment or story the artwork represents.
Doris Caesar’s The Widow elicits a similar response. And though the figure is not divine, her suffering seems no less spiritual and her somber mood no less palpable than if she were more than human. The figure’s form and her intense emotions are transfixing, inciting compassion and curiosity. We empathize with her humanity as we bear witness to her profound grief, which has been forever cast in bronze.
Characteristic of Caesar’s most expressive work, The Widow is a gaunt, life-size figure. With her slumped posture, drooping shoulders, and downturned head, the widow’s body appears to convey the intense emotional weight of her grief. The lumpy contours of her asymmetrical body are evident under her dress, including the shape of her breasts, the roundness of her belly, and the curves of her legs. The widow’s overly large and uneven hands are spindly and prominent, as are the tops of her bare feet. Her thin face reveals a sharp bone structure, sunken cheeks, and a slightly downturned mouth. The widow’s brow is furrowed and her eye sockets hollow, suggesting emptiness. All aspects of her body and face appear physically burdened by the metaphysical heaviness of her sorrow.
Caesar’s art is nearly always described as inspired by the work of a few specific male artists, including Alexander Archipenko and Ernst Lehmbruck of the early twentieth century, and Matthias Grünewald and Tilman Riemenschneider of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. While similarities between Caesar’s work and the work of these artists certainly exist, The Widow and other sculptures demonstrate that Caesar—like her (male) peers—was connected to an even longer and broader legacy of artistic expression and storytelling.
Similar to Caesar’s sculpture, the art of the German Renaissance vividly expresses human emotion. Indeed, the work of Grünewald exemplifies this by emphasizing the human suffering of Christ. His Isenheim Altarpiece (1512–15), created for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim, Germany, conveys deep misery. Given that the monastery functioned as a hospital and that the order of Saint Anthony was associated with curing particularly painful illnesses, the artist’s depiction of extreme anguish seems fitting.
When the altarpiece is closed, we see an elongated Christ on the Cross, his hands and feet writhing in agony. His head droops, with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and mouth agape. Wilhelm Hausenstein, an early twentieth-century art critic, wrote that “the extreme expressiveness of the depicted pain justified the . . . [altarpiece] as Expressionist avant-garde.” Grünewald, he added, was “a visionary artist, the Prophet whose work bound together contemporary artists” with the Renaissance past.
Despite its Italian name, the Pietà (from the word for pity) was a visual motif largely developed by German artists in the Middle Ages. The most famed of these Gothic German depictions of the body of Christ laid across the mourning Virgin’s lap was the Röttgen Pietà (1300–25), which viscerally conveys the physical suffering of Christ and the emotional agony of the Virgin. The Virgin’s head is stiffly downcast, inclined toward her son’s body. Her face explicitly connotes her grief as she looks down at her son’s gaping wounds. The depth and bloodiness of Christ’s injuries create a gruesome scene that emphasizes Christ’s suffering and elicits an emotional response from faithful viewers.
But these visual techniques for expressing misery date back even earlier than the Middle Ages and come from farther east than Germany. According to the art historian Henry Maguire, “Byzantine techniques for expressing suffering . . . [were] extensively copied in the West.” The popularity of the Passion cycle narrative in the Middle Byzantine period prompted the development of new iconographic types, such as the Man of Sorrows, known as the Akra Tapeinosis.
One of the most well-known examples of this type comes from a late twelfth-century double-sided icon from Kastoria, Greece. One side of the icon shows Christ’s head falling dramatically to the side, his brow lightly furrowed and his mouth frowning. Because this image lacks other contextual clues to indicate that it represents the Passion—for example, a cross or a crown of thorns—this combination of body language and facial expression is paramount for fully understanding and connecting with the icon.
The reverse side of this Man of Sorrows features the Virgin and Child in an arrangement known as the Theotokos Hodegetria, or “She Who Points the Way.” The Virgin appears distressed: she cuts her eyes to the side, and there is evident tension in her mouth and brow. Paired with the Man of Sorrows, this work links the Virgin’s memories of Christ’s childhood to the agony of the Passion.
This visual formula used to represent narratives of despair and anguish can also be seen in prior centuries, for instance in the Early Byzantine mosaic portrait of John the Baptist (c. 548–65) from Saint Katherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. John’s brow is heavily emotive, his eyebrows nearly diagonal instead of horizontal. And his mouth is pressed into a deep frown, indicating that he is the Tragic Prophet.
As we go back further in history to a time prior to Christianity—such as the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece—it becomes clear that even then, artists portrayed the agony of consecrated figures in similar ways. Take, for instance, the famed sculpture of Laocoön, a seer and priest of Apollo, and his sons being attacked by two serpents. Laocoön engages all his muscles as he fights the snakes and tries to protect his children. With his head contorted to the side, Laocoön is in pure agony, grimacing and screaming as his brows tightly clench together. He is suffering physically, because the giant snakes are attacking him, and emotionally, because they are attacking his sons.
But painters such as El Greco demonstrate the cyclical nature of art. Born in Crete, El Greco painted Greek Orthodox icons as a young man, and he carried many Byzantine painting conventions over to the larger-scale canvas works he executed while living in Spain. As we see in The Repentant Magdalen (c. 1577), for example, El Greco depicted biblical figures in an evocatively dramatic manner, one that was visually similar to both the Byzantine icons of the past and the modernist sculpture—such as that by Doris Caesar—of the future.
With The Widow, Doris Caesar viscerally captured a melancholy mood, forevermore visible in striking bronze sculpture. It’s a sentiment she expressed perfectly in her 1937 poem “A Statue Stood”:
Here was a mood,
Caught and held in static pose,
And as I looked
I knew, that mood
Would go on and on
Lily F. Scott is a PhD candidate at Temple University specializing in American modernism, with a focus on queer art and artists. Their dissertation examines the portraiture of and by queer American women artists living in 1920s Paris. Lily is currently the Barra Fellow in American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
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