The Man of Sorrows in the Chancel of the Fortified Church at Dârlos
The Man of Sorrows in the Chancel of the Fortified Church at Dârlos

By Maria D. Anghel | National University of Arts, Bucharest


The image of the Man of Sorrows is depicted in the sanctuary of the fortified church in Dârlos, Transylvania, currently a region of Romania, which was a part of the Hungarian Kingdom during the Middle Ages. Built in two stages throughout the 14th century, the simple edifice comprises a compact longitudinal nave, culminating in a pentagonal choir toward the east. The two late-medieval niches in the chancel, namely, the Eucharistic tabernacle embedded in the northern wall, and the stone sedilia protruding from the southern side, presumably had a liturgical function. Although the architectural setting and the sculpted elements could be conventionally characterized as Gothic, the 15th-century frescoes preserved in the sanctuary illustrate a craftsmanship of Byzantine tradition. Nevertheless, the wall paintings incorporate certain traits of a formal and iconographic repertory with roots in Western traditions.

The mural representation of the Man of Sorrows (Vir Dolorum) is inserted in between two stone trefoil arches on the gable of the sedilia. Therein, the full-figure representation of two Holy Kings of Hungary, identified as Sts. Ladislas and Stephen, would have corresponded to a seating place in the two-folded niche. Whereas the sedilia was an ecclesiastical furnishing specific to Western churches in the Middle Ages, the composition of the Man of Sorrows is rendered almost entirely according to Byzantine iconographic formulas. Thus, the bust-length Christ emerging from a sarcophagus is placed in front of the cross inscribed with the nomina sacra (IC XC). Above his abdomen, the crossed arms of the Savior discreetly display the wounds of Crucifixion, while his head rests on his shoulder. The illustration of the disproportionately broader bust emphasizes the Eucharistic undertones of the image. Although the composition corresponds to the Byzantine schema, the eyes of Christ are partially open. On a closer examination, we may remark the fact that the eyes are not simply illustrated through a brown curved line, but through a teardrop shape that narrowly discloses his pupils.


The origin of the depiction of the salvific sacrifice of Christ is generally associated with the remodeling of the monastic ritual in Middle Byzantine aristocratic foundations. More specifically, the image is presumed to have been created as an icon, which was used for the service of the Passion on the Great Saturday. One of the earliest variations of this theme is encountered on a 12th-century bilateral icon in the Metropolis of Kastoria, northern Greece, where the figure is portrayed bust-length with a close-up on the facial expressions. A subsequent development of this theme included Christ’s abdomen and arms, crossed on his chest and presenting the wounds, as shown in the famous micromosaic from Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome.

Not surprisingly, as it constituted the depiction of the body of Christ par excellence, the image was transferred to the walls of the sanctuaries and invested with powerful Eucharistic connotations. Usually, in the mural versions from the Byzantine cultural context, Christ appears as a corpse with his eyes closed. However, there are certain 14th- and 15th-century examples that illustrate the enlivened type, as it may be seen in the prothesis of Hagia Sophia in Mystra, in Greece (ca. 1370), and in the Serbian Monastery of Kalenić (ca. 1418). Studies agree upon the fact that the detail of the open eyes was adopted from the Western iconographic formulation. This particular iconographic feature is also attested in the late medieval churches in the Hungarian Kingdom and Central Europe. For instance, in Transylvania, the vivified depiction is rendered twice in the sanctuary of the fortified church in Mălâncrav (ca. 1405) and bust-length in the sanctuary of the church in Nemșa (ca. 1400).

In the chancel at Dârlos, the predominantly Byzantine composition of the Man of Sorrows was introduced in a functional context associated with Western liturgical practices. The sedilia refers to the seats near the altar used by the priest and the deacon during the early moments of the celebration of the Mass. Although there is no conclusive research on this ecclesiastical furnishing in Central European edifices, some extant late-medieval documents from England testify to its exclusive usage by members of the clergy. In Transylvania, in the 15th-century church at Șmig, the “hole-in-the-wall” sedilia – in James Cameron’s terms – contains an analogous composition of Sts. Ladislas and Stephen. Conversely, in the church at Curciu, an almost free-standing sitting niche from the 15th century preserves a sculpted trefoil ornamentation on its gable. Albeit distant, the figurative programs from extant medieval English examples are relevant in our case, as they display full-length figures of kings and members of the clergy, such as those in Westminster Abbey or in Easby Abbey. Given these iconographic occurrences, one may observe the proclivity toward visualizing authority, providing a pictorial setting for the clergy lodged in them. The latter were therefore enhanced by the powerful figures that accentuated their status as sole handlers of the precious body and blood of Christ. In the later Middle Ages, the modifications related to the liturgical and the devotional practices of the Eucharistic cult endorsed the clergy with the progressive domination over the holy body and blood of Christ. After the affirmation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist during the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the sacrament ought to have been consumed only visually, as one of the Canons strongly discouraged the physical contact with the consecrated species. The attestation of the real presence endowed the Eucharist with powers similar to a relic, and the faithful were suffused with the “desire to see the host,” as Edouard Dumoutet puts it.

At Dârlos, the Man of Sorrows surmounts the aforementioned saintly kings, Ladislas and Stephen. This pictorial correlation is not completely unusual in the Kingdom of Hungary. An enlivened full-figure of the Man of Sorrows appears in the cycle of St. Ladislas in the nave at Laskod, Hungary (ca. 1320–30), and in a comparable form near an unidentified saintly king in the nave at Čerín, Slovakia (ca. 1380–90). In the broader context of Central Europe, the Vir Dolorum acquired a particular royal significance at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV (1316-78). This image was placed above the altar and reliquary cabinet of the Holy Cross Chapel at Karlštejn castle, asserting Charles as the rightful Emperor. Integrated in its iconographic setting at Dârlos, the Man of Sorrows presents a series of visual analogies with royal figures. The depiction of the dead Christ interacts both on a semantical and iconographical level with Sts. Constantin and Helena flanking the True Cross, as well as with the cycle of St. Catherine of Alexandria. Thus, one may notice the emulation of the attributes of the Passion portrait (the Cross and the sarcophagus) in the depictions of the Holy Emperors and the scene of Entombment of the martyr of royal descent, conveying a triumphalist dimension to the otherwise grievous implications of the sacrifice of Christ. Therefore, given its associations with the other mural depictions and with the function of the sedilia, the adopted Byzantine form of the Man of Sorrows emphasizes its original meaning, as King of Glory (Basileus tes doxes).

Whereas the West exploited only the sacrificial nuances of this theme, in the Byzantine context Christ’s resurrection has been predominantly accentuated at the expense of his sacrifice, alternating between the King of Glory and Utmost Humiliation (Akra Tapeinosis). Probably, in the context of a Latin church in Transylvania, these triumphal allusions were evoked as a tool to further enhance the status of the clergy who held the supreme authority, based on their power to transform the wine and bread into the holy body and blood of the Savior. The visualization of authority was also visibly imbued in the iconographic context on the southern wall at the Catholic church in Șmig. Although there is no apparent depiction of the Man of Sorrows, the association of the two holy kings in the sedilia with the poorly conserved image of the Living Cross would have functioned in a similar manner, as the latter represents the ultimate pictorial representation of the triumphant Ecclesia.

Further Reading

Belting, Hans. “An Image and Its Function in the Liturgy: The Man of Sorrows in Byzantium.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34–35 (1980–1981): 1–16.

In this seminal article, Belting analyses the association between the Byzantine composition of the Man of Sorrows and the liturgical context of Holy Week. The author argues that the creation of this synthetic portrayal of Christ in front of the cross would have displaced the employment of multiple individual icons from the cycle of the Passion.

Cameron, James Alexander. “From Hole-in-the-Wall to Heavenly Mansions: The Microarchitectural Development of Sedilia in Thirteenth–Century England.” In Microarchitectures médiévales. L'échelle à l'épreuve de la matière, edited by Jean-Marie Guillouët and Ambre Vilain, 153–163. Paris: Picard, 2018.

James Cameron examines the structural development of the sedilia in medieval England, exploring the patronage context in which some of the extant liturgical fittings were created.

Năstăsoiu, Dragoș-Gheorghe. “Between Personal Devotion and Political Propaganda: Iconographic Aspects in the Representation of the sancti reges Hungariae in Church Mural Painting (14th Century–Early-16th Century),” 226–306 (“Hybrid Art and Hybrid Piety– Transgression of Artistic and Confessional Borders by the sancti reges Hungariae”). PhD Dissertation. Budapest: Central European University, 2018.

This chapter from Dragoș Năstăsoiu’s doctoral thesis considers the mural representations of Sts. Ladislas and Stephen at Dârlos, in parallel with other hybrid contexts that included the images of the Hungarian Kings. Although he does not exclude the possibility of a liturgical meaning, Năstăsoiu correlates the depictions at Dârlos with devotional patterns of late medieval patrons.

Puglisi, Catherine R., and Barcham, William L. “The Man of Sorrows and Royal Imaging: the Body Politic and Sovereign Authority in Mid-Fourteenth-Century Prague and Paris.” Artibus et Historiae: Essays in Honor of Stefania Mason 35, no. 70 (2014): 31–59.

This study investigates the royal overtones of the Man of Sorrows in some pictorial instances commissioned by the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles de Luxembourg and his nephew, who used this image as an instrument for legitimizing their power.

Simić-Lazar, Draginja. “Le Christ de Pitié vivant. L’exemple de Kalenić.” Zograf 20 (1989): 83–94.

Draginja Simić-Lazar associates the unusual rendering of the enlivened Man of Sorrows in the prothesis of the Serbian Monastery of Kalenić with the office of the Great Saturday. The author explains the inclusion of the open eyes as a reflection of the state of somnolence of the Savior expressed in the liturgical hymns. This metaphor evoked the paradox of Christ’s death, which did not alter his condition as ever-living God.

This contribution was sponsored by the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture at Hellenic College Holy Cross.

Maria D. Anghel, "The Man of Sorrows in the Chancel of the Fortified Church at Dârlos," Mapping Eastern Europe, eds. M. A. Rossi and A. I. Sullivan, accessed June 3, 2023,