Pain on exhibit, and two views of crucifixion

At the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum is an exhibit on pain (Schmerz). Art shares the walls and display cases with medical implements, a case of pickled, often diseased organs, photos of autoerotic deaths, and a curiously compelling film of a man dancing naked in an attic, a pink plush dinosaur on a chair next to him.

Perhaps most striking is a segment focusing on the crucifixion, the central symbol of a 2000-year obsession with transcendent suffering. Artists have redrawn the passion story in lovingly, fetishistic detail for centuries; and the imagining of the pain itself has led thousands of martyrs to seek the same end. But modern science has of course given us an alternative way to imagine the event: The exhibit tells the story of American medical examiner Frederick Zugibe, who has spent much of his professional career (since beginning with a college term paper) studying the biomechanics of crucifixion, trying to assess the realism of the gospel stories.

Years ago, Zugibe constructed a cross, hung volunteers and studied blood gas, body stresses, heart action, etc. In a museum case here are the instruments used, and photos of his experiments. Unromantic and matter-of-fact, they’re utterly unlike the religious art with which they share the room; and yet Zugibe himself is a practicing Catholic, knighted by the Pope for his work. It’s tempting to see this as the modern response to the story, hard-headed and practical, but then there’s the sweeping success of Mel Gibson’s enthusiastically gory “Passion” movie, and its leagues of evangelical fans. In the US, at least, the unreasoning cult of martyrdom remains strong.

Zugibe, for what it’s worth, says “Passion” was unrealistic. Any real-life human body suffering the beatings given Gibson’s Jesus would have collapsed long before he reached the hill to be crucified.