This painting, along with his Nativity, is among Carl Schmitt’s largest religious paintings, and his most glorious. It was done during Schmitt’s “tapestry” period, yet, like The Sower, moves beyond that ethos both in terms of artistic accomplishment and religious content.
The work caught the eye of Mrs. Nicholas Brady, wife of one of the most prominent and wealthy Catholics in America, who purchased it for the novititate house she was building for the Jesuit order in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Brady had already bought a smaller crucifixion Schmitt had done while in Chartres (see image below), and gave both to grace the new house, where they remain to this day.
Contemporary reviewers of the painting appreciated its glorious color but were were puzzled by its title; as one critic wondered, “why ‘Trinity’ when apparently it represents only the Second Person?” They also noted how odd it was to depict Christ’s crucifixion without the cross. In this article Schmitt’s son Carl, Jr. ponders the deeper content of the work, exploring both its title and its portrait of Christ.
This is a most perplexing painting. As I’ve said on other occasions, whenever I offered an explanation of one of my father’s paintings, he would always say, “Don’t make silly theories, just look at it.”
He meant, “If you are in any way attracted by it, look again, gaze at it, think about it, contemplate it. And then maybe you’ll see something more in it—and perhaps you’ll even begin to enjoy it.”
At a first look, we certainly are perplexed. The main figure seems to be Christ crucified—but certainly not in a guise we are familiar with. His arms are outstretched as if on a cross and he seems to be dying; but the cross itself is not there. Wounded he is, but not in his feet, and though he has a halo, there’s no crown of thorns; it is also a bit startling to see his hair almost blond. And though we can see there a Mary, John, the Magdalene, and two angels, the setting itself hardly suggests that “place of the skull” we know as Calvary.
But the title at least supplies us with a clue: this is the immanent Christ. This is, to be sure, most unusual, yet we can find its basis in the Gospel itself. We have seen portrayals of Christ drawn from a multitude of Gospel scenes—all those Nativities and Madonnas and countless other depictions of the Savior’s life through his passion and death to his resurrection, ascension, and glory. None of these can be said to portray an immanent Christ.
Schmitt saw Christ in all of those ways, but the basis for his depiction of an immanent Christ can also be found in the Gospel. Christ, for Schmitt, was “true God and true man,” and this he continues to be, now and forever, the absolutely perfect union of the divine and the human. In Biblical language the word adam means “man,” and for Schmitt, as he often pointed out, it was no accident that Christ’s favorite name for himself was “the Son of Man.”
Furthermore, who has not been moved by that passage in the Gospel when Christ refers to a moment in the last judgment when those he welcomes into his kingdom ask, “When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or see thee thirsty and give thee to drink?” And the Lord will answer, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it to me.” And Christ gives a like response to those who were condemned.
In effect, Christ is potentially immanent in every man. Pope John Paul II more than once said that Christ “has united Himself in some way with every man.” Here is man not just in the universality of a word we use to assert a truth, but in the reality of the Word, which we likewise find asserted in the Gospel. And likewise who has not heard that we are called to be “other Christs”? Who has not been challenged by the effort to “see Christ” in others?
Schmitt has written that “The aim of art is to bear witness of the truth.” He devoted his life as an artist to seeing reality as truly and deeply as he could in order to put it into his work, which he always thought of as simply a gift. This is perhaps why he asked us simply to look at his paintings, in the hope that we might “in some way” be attracted enough to look again and see more deeply.