Humility & Patience
By LIZ HAGER
Estaban Sampzon (attributed), Christ of the Humility and Patience, polychromatic wood, 1788-93
Through formal and informal study over the years, I’ve been exposed to the full monty of Messiah iconography—i.e. 2000+ years of Christ in mosaics, Christ in frescos, Byzantine-icon Christ, Christ on boards, canvas, even Christ abstracted (e.g. Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross series). Despite all this exposure, I admit I’m no expert on the subject. Moreover, I’m visually weary, oversaturated, maybe even. . . Jesus-jaded.
Every once in a while, though, chance throws a wholly different Christ figure into my path, one so different from the standard treatments that shocks me awake, challenges me to reassess that indifferent attitude, begs me to reengage. Estaban Sampzon’s Christ of the Humility and Patience, located in the Church of the Merced in Buenos Aires, threw down such a gauntlet.
What appealed to me straight away was the utter human-ness of the figure. The sensitivity and realism with which Sampson has portrayed his subject—the slumped pose, the parted lips, the intense gaze of the eyes (enhanced by glass inserts, as was the custom of the times). And the most magnificent detail, those scraped knees! Sampson didn’t choose to depict the more common dignified Son-of-God Christ—not Christ Resurrected, Christ Triumphant or Christ of abject pain in the crucifixion scenes. He presents us with the image of Christ as a regular guy full of anguish. OK OK not quite a regular guy, but in this moment deeply human, mirroring the emotions of his flock. Even with only my rudimentary memory of the events leading up to the crucifixion, it seems clear to me that this is a moment after which Christ has fallen, stumbled under the burden of the heavy wooden cross. He’s miserable. He’s suffering. He’s certainly in intense physical pain, but it seems obvious that, at this moment, emotional pain has completely overwhelmed him. I imagine he realizes the finality of his situation. Despair. His inner thoughts so clear—”why me?” Although my circumstances have been less dire, I certainly connect to THAT conversation.
Estaban Sampson was a Filipino, most likely of Chinese heritage. His delicate sense of line and naturalistic style reflect the hallmarks of the Filipino ivory carving tradition of the time, so perhaps that’s where he started his artistic life. I haven’t found any references as to exactly what brought him to Argentina, but, he was not unlike many Asians of the time, who emigrated to colonial Central and South America for work.
Most remarkable to me is that more than two hundred years after Sampson created this piece, it still has the power to provoke. As an artist, that’s something worth striving for.