I come from an RC background and the RC Crucifixes after at least the 1300's showed a very prominent crown of thorns on Christs head. When I became Orthodox I noticed that most iconography of the Crucifixion does not portray Christ wearing the crown of thorns. Is there some reason for this that anyone knows of?
Have you watched Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ?
My understanding (based on watching a PBS broadcast on the Enlightenment history) is as follows:
Catholicism emphasized the suffering of Christ through artwork promoted by the Enlightenment.
The Orthodox iconography depicts Christ as the peaceful Tree of Life hanging between Heaven and Earth and does not excessively emphasize the suffering of Christ.
A few comments on SoxEX01's post:
The western church indeed began to emphasise the suffering of Christ, in its religious art, and in its liturgical and devotional practices. However, if we are to take the Enlightenment period as beginning in the late 18th century, it is quite clear that this shift predates this period by a good 500 years. The early religious paintings of Giotto and Cimabue, widely regarded as among the earliest painters of the emerging Renaissance, who painted at the turn of the 14th C, were little different in form to Orthodox iconography. Within a decade or two, their work had already begun to change into a more "realistic" style, which, within a couple of centuries, had evolved into the full-blown, very "realistic" High Renaissance art of Michelangelo and his contemporaries and successors. However, the origins of the divergence between western religious art and Orthodox iconography can be traced to a time even earlier - to the time of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in 787.
The short answer is that Rome did not initially "sign off" on the rulings and canons of that council, and, by the time it did so, its liturgical and artistic approach had already diverged quite a bit from the Orthodox position. Some examples:
An iconographer uses his talent to paint icons according to the theology and traditions of the Orthodox Church, and should never sign his work. A western European artist was soon able to give free rein to his creativity, could sign his work, and could even use living people as models for the saints and holy ones he painted or sculpted. There are any number of Renaissance Madonnas which were painted or sculpted to resemble this or that prince's, doge's or nobleman's wife, daughter, etc. Saints, too, could be painted to resemble living people. Michelangelo famously painted Apostle Bartholomew's face in the flayed skin the saint is holding in the Last Judgement panel in the Sistine Chapel modeled on his own. This practice violates a central and immutable principle of iconography, and is unacceptable under all circumstances when it comes to painting icons.
Regarding Christ as the Tree of Life: It is the Cross
on which He was crucified which is referred to liturgically as the new Tree of Life; Christ is variously referred to liturgically (especially in the services for Holy Week) as the Source (or Fount) of Life, the new Adam, and similar terminology.
The following is from a lecture on iconography I gave a couple of years ago:Western religious art, particularly that from the Renaissance and Gothic period, almost always emphasises the human suffering of Christ at His passion. This is no accident, as, from about the 12th C onwards, the focus of religious devotion in the west gradually changed from dispassionate to passionate expressions, be they in art, music and singing, or the seeking of particular types of “religious experiences”. A new emphasis was being placed on emotions in spiritual life, resulting in such phenomena as stigmata. This phenomenon was, and continues to be, frequently reported in the west, but is practically unknown in the Orthodox world. Another result was the central emphasis of the Crucifixion (Death) of Christ supplanting that of the Resurrection. In popular devotion, Christ was depicted more and more as a suffering fellow man, rather than as God Incarnate. Perhaps the most stark and uncompromising artwork of this type is the Isenheim Altarpiece painted by the 16th C Gothic artist Matthias Grünewald.
By contrast, Orthodox iconography depicts the passion and crucifixion of Christ in far more dispassionate terms, as it does any of its subject matter. Taking the Crucifixion as an example: We do not see a ravaged, tortured body on the cross, but Christ willingly offering himself as sacrifice for the salvation of the world, and, even in death, triumphant over death and sin. His human life has ended, but He remains God. His divinity is not diminished. There is little blood, Christ’s bodily wounds are confined to the marks of the nails, and the pierced side. Even the crown of thorns is absent, and the inscription above His head reads The King of Glory, not Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (the latter usually abbreviated to its Latin acronym INRI.
The content of an icon is not intended to force an emotional response. There is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. In portraying moments of biblical history, the faces of participants in the scene are rarely expressive of their feelings at the time as we might imagine them, but suggest virtues - purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. In icons of the Crucifixion, the physical pain Christ endured on the cross is not shown; the icon reveals what led Him to the cross, the free action of giving His life for the salvation of humanity. There is no superficial or exaggerated drama. Similarly, the Virgin and Apostle John are grief-stricken, but their posture and gestures are restrained yet powerful. The emotion is in the eyes, and the Virgin has her right hand pointing to the crucified Christ in the same way as she does in her icons with the Christ-child. Her posture and gestures also echo hymnody from the Matins of Holy Saturday, sung on Great Friday evening. Here is one small example:
O my Son and my God, though I am wounded to the core and torn to the heart as I see You dead, yet confident in Your resurrection, I magnify You.
It is also worth looking at the liturgical references to the Passion. The events of Christ’s betrayal, passion and crucifixion are commemorated at the Matins of Great Friday, sung on Holy Thursday evening. There must be complete harmony and correspondence between iconographic content and that of liturgical hymnody and scripture; liturgical content also represents the distillation of what the Church teaches and espouses on that particular feast or commemoration. While Judas Iscariot and the members of the Sanhedrin are certainly described as treacherous, lawless, greedy ingrates, the other theme permeating the hymnody is the willingness and equanimity with which Christ accepted His suffering and death, out of His boundless compassion for mankind. Significantly, the Gospel readings pertaining to Christ’s time in the garden are from Matthew and Mark, not the more graphic one of Luke (which has, among other motifs, the imagery of His sweat falling to the ground “like great drops of blood”). Perhaps the liturgist fathers found the imagery of the other Gospels sufficient in illustrating the human suffering of Christ so as not to unbalance the emphasis between His human and divine natures. Interestingly, the non-Gospel hymnody does not even mention the events of “the agony in the garden”, most likely for the same reason.
Consider the iconography of martyr-saints, such as St Ignatius the God-bearer being attacked by lions in the arena, or the stoning of Protomartyr Stephen: Martyr-saints are not shown in throes of physical agony, but, more importantly, in complete submission to their fate, and anticipation of their coming heavenly life. An icon is a spiritual depiction, not a naturalistic one. Therefore, any depiction of scenes of the passion of Christ, including His betrayal, should be free from any histrionics or grand displays of emotion.
Hope this helps.