Crucifixion Pax Tablet,
Behind the Scenes
“Crucifixion” Pax Tablet, Italian master, brass, c. 1550-1650.
Question: What exactly is a “pax-board” according to the Catholic Church?
An anonymous artist/craftsman created this relief, so we can only speculate about when and where he worked. Pax boards originated in the thirteenth century and were particularly popular in Italy in the sixteenth century. The Crucifixion was the most common theme for a pax before 1600. Pax boards were usually made of silver or gilt-gold, but this is probably brass. This indicates that it was produced for a modest community. If it was produced in a rural area, it may date in the seventeenth century, since it took time for new artistic styles to spread from urban centers.
Alexis Jason-Mathews majored in Art History and received her B.A. from James Madison University in 2010. This fall she entered a Ph. D. program in Art History at Rutgers University. She researched this object in the fall 2009, and produced the following catalog entry:
“Crucifixion” Pax Tablet, anonymous Italian master, brass, c. 1550-1650.
(Madison Art Collection 76.1.894)
As the heartland of Roman Catholicism, Italy has produced many works of religious art that doubled as liturgical objects. The Crucifixion relief in the Madison Art Collection is definitely of Italian origin, but the purpose and date of the relief have been unclear. This research suggests that the relief is a pax tablet that was used during the celebration of Catholic Mass, and that it dates from the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries. A pax tablet is a small metal relief that was passed around during Mass before breaking bread for the Eucharist to be kissed by the celebrants. Pax tablets were also used in other church ceremonies. They frequently bear images of the Man of Sorrows or the Crucifixion.
The Madison Art Collection relief depicts the Crucifixion scene surrounded by a laurel border. Christ hangs on the cross, dominating the center, and above his head is a banner that reads “INRI,” the acronym for the Latin phrase, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” On either side stand a haloed female figure with a head covering, her head bowed and her hands clasped in prayer and a haloed male figure with his left hand raised, gazing up at Jesus. They most likely represent the Virgin Mary (on the right) and John the Evangelist (on the left), as they were often included in depictions of the Crucifixion. In his Gospel John describes the Crucifixion, saying, “…Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby…” “The disciple that Christ loved” has been identified as John the Evangelist, which explains his frequent presence in images of the Crucifixion.
In examining this artwork, the primary issues were establishing its purpose and date. The relief has been remounted on a wooden frame; therefore its original purpose has been obscured. The religious scene, small size of the object, and wear on the metal surface imply that it served a liturgical role. The tablet resembles the small relief that is passed around during Mass and kissed by the congregants immediately preceding the Eucharist. Pax tablets were associated with the tradition of the “kiss of peace,” where congregants would kiss either a pax or the priest as a seal of prayer. They were also used during confirmations of new members of a church and of new members of the clergy. The presiding priest offered the pax to the candidate, and the candidate would kiss it.
Pax boards originated during the thirteenth century and were particularly popular in Italy in the sixteenth century. The Crucifixion was the most common theme for a pax before 1600, but post-1600 other themes, especially those focused on the Virgin Mary, were more frequent. This was due to the Counter-Reformation, which celebrated the role of the Virgin in the Church. The typical shape of a pax also changed over the centuries. Earlier pax boards were rectangular or arch-shaped, like the one in the Madison Art Collection, whereas seventeenth to eighteenth century examples were oval or round. Its size and material also help to chronologically situate the artwork. The Madison Art Collection example is 10.8 cm x 14.6 cm, relatively small compared to other pax tablets. Pax boards were usually made of silver or gilt-gold, but this is probably brass. This indicates that it was produced for a smaller, more modest community. It is also smaller than similar pax boards and has simpler relief. The figures’ clothing is consistent with the early Baroque period, when drapery became heavier and more dramatic than in the Renaissance when it was filmier and lighter. Taking into consideration the shape, iconography, and drapery style, the date can be narrowed down to somewhere between the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth century. Dating remains somewhat problematic, though, since the quality suggests that it was a provincial work. If it was produced in a rural area, it may date in the seventeenth century, since it took time for new artistic styles to spread from urban centers.
The Crucifixion tablet should be seen in light of the dramatic religious changes in the mid-sixteenth century. The Reformation, which sprang from disillusionment with the Church, spread across Europe. Martin Luther objected to the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences and abuse of power. He questioned the right of the clergy to grant salvation and believed that the Bible was the only source of Christian truth. The Council of Trent, convened in 1545 by Pope Paul III, was called to reconcile with the Protestants, but in reality it laid out the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism and rejected Protestant beliefs. The Catholic Counter-Reformation had a profound effect on art in Italy and Spain. Artists had to follow new artistic doctrines. New emphasis was given to the Virgin Mary and the sacraments. Reliquaries and liturgical objects like the Pax assumed a more significant role. (Alexis Jason-Mathews)
 J.G. Davis, ed., A Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972), 188.
 Catholic Encyclopedia, “Pax,” Catholic Encyclopedia Online. http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9096 (accessed 11/2/09)
 George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955), 159.
 John 19:26, The Bible, New International Version.
 Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold, (eds.), The Study of Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 130.
 Stefanie Walker, “A Pax by Guglielmo della Porta,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 26 (1991): 167-176.
 “Pax Depicting the Resurrection,” The Victoria and Albert Museum, see http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O118453/pax-pax-depicting-the-resurrection.
 Thomas Richter, Paxtafeln und Pacificalia: Studien zu Form, Ikonographie und liturgischem Gebrauch (Weimar: VDG, 2003). This source provides extensive photographs of pax tablets throughout the centuries.
 “The Council of Trent,” History Learning Site. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/council-of-trent.htm (accessed 10/26/09)
 Emile Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteen Centuries (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949), 69-186.