This scene is of interest for several reasons. Though it had emerged in Byzantium by the middle Byzantine period, it became relatively common in both East and West only much later, and at almost exactly the same time: the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.The Byzantine and Italian versions of the scene are clearly related, yet they differ in significant ways. This essay will discuss the origins and development of the scene in the East, then turn to the western interpretations, considering the ways that Tuscan painters adapted and changed the image, and the reasons for these changes.
Vehapar Gospel, Fig. 57
Possibly the earliest known example of the scene appears in an Armenian manuscript, the Vehapar Gospel (fig. 57; Erevan, Matenadaran no. 10780, fol. 125v), dated by colophon to the eleventh century.Thomas Mathews's recent study of this manuscript must be considered in the debate on the origins of this image, which many writers, myself included, had placed in Italy.12 Mathews argues that the Vehapar miniature fixes its beginnings securely in the East.Though, at present, the miniature remains an isolated example, I believe that he is right.12 A review of the examples of the image that survive in East and West, and of the related texts, may clarify the issues here.The miniature in the Vehapar Gospel depicts Christ climbing a ladder that is leaning against the cross. A soldier standing on an upper rung takes him by the hand, while two others stand below; one of the pair prods him from behind.Another soldier stands on a second ladder, grasping the crossbar like his partner opposite him.The essentials of this image — the climbing position of Christ and the use of ladder — recur in all later versions, but the placement of the soldiers, their number, and their exact actions vary from example to example.
Despite its occurrence here, I know of no other instances of the image in Byzantine art until the end of the thirteenth century. The theme seems to have been favored especially in Macedonia and Serbia; two examples similar to the Armenian miniature are found in Macedonian churches of the 1290s. One is in the naos of the church of the Virgin Peribleptos (now St.Clement), Ohrid; the cycle is signed by the painters Michael and Eutychios and dated 1295 (fig. 58).
The other is in thje naos of St. Nicolas near Prilep naos of St. Nicolas near Prilep, dated by inscription 1298-99 (fig.59). In both of these, Christ climbs a ladder propped to the left of the cross, as in the Armenian manuscript. Now, however, he climbs unaided; the soldiers who prodded him along in the Armenian manuscript stand on the sidelines (at Ohrid, they appear in the adjacent fresco to the left).
Staro Nagoricino (fig.60)
Much the same scene occurs in a number of other fresco cycles in Macedonia — as in a fresco at the Protaton, Mount Athos, ca. 1290-1300, and at Veroia, ca. 1315 — and in Staro Nagoricino (fig.60) includes a soldier placing his hand on Christ's back, as in the Armenian miniature (fig. 57). The composition also appears in Romania and Bulgaria, and in Armenian manuscripts. Except for the late thirteenth-century examples noted above, all the later versions known to me date from the fourteenth century, the scene then seems to fade from view.
The Sacred Image East and West
By Robert G. Ousterhout, Leslie Brubaker