Balthasar Permoser's Triumph of the Cross

Balthasar Permoser was an important Baroque sculptor known for dynamic dramatic compositions and exquisite carving skills. Born near Salzburg in 1651, he first studied art in Vienna and later in Northern Italy – mostly, Florence. Permoser’s style fuses Germanic and Italianate sculptural characteristics – very often, the delicacy of Italianate face features is accompanied by a more severe execution of bodily postures and attire in his compositions. Permoser worked primarily for royal patrons and consequently his sculpture spans all aspects of what is considered profane subject matter in the late 17th and early 18th centuries – mythological and literary themes, apotheoses, curiosities, portraiture etc. However, among his works, one also finds a number of arresting religious sculptures for private individuals that show Permoser as an artist of deep thought and refined Catholic sentiment. Permoser’s Triumph of the Cross is a masterpiece of religious art executed for a private commission while the artist still lived in Florence. The Triumph is also the most complex religious composition realized by this acclaimed sculptor.

Let us begin by noting that even a glance at Permoser’s statues carved for personal devotion or contemplation reveals that he was fascinated by the theme of death. This is not an unusual preoccupation for artists, of course, and that dance macabre, for example, was part of visual literature in Europe since at least the beginning of the 15th century. What is interesting about Permoser is that his work visibly explores psychological aspects of human anticipation of death as something absurd, grotesque, terrifying against a Christian understanding of Christ’s death as surrender. Nowhere else is surrender to death as finely captured as when Permoser sets his hand to wood or ivory to carve a crucifix.

Triumph’s particular ensemble can be divided into three sections. Starting from the bottom we find the abyss of oblivion represented by the opening earth and falling rocks with the dramatic figure of Lust shown as a female figure holding a scorpion (symbol of treachery), emitting a cry of pain and defeat; as a companion to Lust, on the opposite is Satan also emitting a cry of defeat and holding a shackle, symbol of his fallenness and his role as an enslaver. The two child-like figures caressing each other visually balance several putti in the golden sunburst. Rhetorically, these two little figures represent impure motives and hence their placement at the entrance to abysmal Hell. The middle tier is a dark globe representing the world, straddled by ivory carved skeletal figure of Death and a writhing snake (sin). Death holds up a carved banner with a gilded inscription: "Fide Cruci Cuncta Hoc pen det Victoria Signo. Hoc Mundus, Demon, Mors, Caro victa jacent." (Trust in the cross. The whole victory depends on this sign. Through it the world, the devil, death, and the flesh are defeated). The second inscription reads: "In hoc Signo Victoria et Salus" (In this sign is victory and salvation.) The upper tier is a glorified Cross with an exuberant sunburst typical of the Baroque, small figures of putti adorning the bursting rays of glory that encircle a delicate ivory Christ.

This entire work is of course a representation of Christ’s triumph over the world, the devil, and sin. Certainly, it also is Permoser’s personal meditation on hope vis-à-vis human struggle with spiritual corruption and bodily death and decay. This grand and dramatic apocalyptic vision standing 118 cm tall (about 46”) was meant for display in a personal study, oratory, or library of the owner. This is definitely not an altar cross. In addition to ivory and wood for the sculpted elements, Permoser used radiant gilded copper for the sunburst.


In our own historical moment, it is very rare to find well thought through, well executed, and inspiring art for personal devotion – unless one can afford antiques. Indeed, very few contemporary artists work with religious art in its devotional capacity, because – simply put – the demand is very weak. All too often, Catholic devotional art is associated only with inexpensive poorly crafted ephemera such as laminated prayer cards or glass rosaries rather than with solemn and precious objects. Yet in the past, some of the most beautiful examples of our religious art were commissioned by private individuals either for themselves – as objects of petition, praise, memento mori, etc. - or as gifts for family and friends. Let’s consider bringing this mindset and practice back to our own times. Permoser’s Triumph of the Cross, this wonderous effigy of Christian faith, hope, and love, shows how well devotional art can be and should be done, how it can be powerful, moving, significant and lasting.

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