We are all familiar with the phrase, "Cut to the chase." Its origin, of course, derives from motion pictures where the most exciting part of the film might involve a car chase, usually through a densely populated area, with enough near-misses (an oxymoron in terms of meaning if there ever was one) and collisions to fill two junkyards. "The thrilling chase scenes from The French Connection comes to mind. The hilarious Stanley Kramer film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was one long, continuous chase scene from beginning to end. In popular usage, the phrase has come to mean, skip all the boring details and tell me how things finally came out. And though "cutting to the chase" might seem to be a thoroughly modern, twentieth century reference, there is nothing new in its meaning.
Even the original cave painters with their hunt/kill scenes were, essentially, "cutting to the chase." In fact, all down through the history of art, but especially during the Renaissance and Baroque periods when painting matured as a viable, communicative art form, artists have gravitated toward the most dramatic incidents in their narrative depictions - in effect - "cutting" to the climactic moment of truth when the ending of the story becomes apparent. And since these endings often involved death and very often work during this period was church sponsored, we find a whole new genre of religious art developing - Martyrdoms.
Although the genre did not reach its peak until the 1600s, we find antecedents long before that in the form of the ultimate Christian martyrdom - crucifixions. The French artist Henri Bellechose's Altarpiece of St Denis from 1416 is a typical Medieval example. In a symmetrical composition with a crucified Christ in the middle, he combines the crucifixion with a pictorial narrative of St Denis's own life from his imprisonment (far left), during which time he is served Holy Communion by Christ himself, to his ultimate, grisly beheading on the right. Rich with gold leaf and overt, as well as subtle, symbolism, the painting depicts the patron saint of France at the foot of Montmartre (Martyr's Mount) before, during, and after his decapitation.
Spain's King Phillip II may have inadvertently spawned the increasing popularity of martyrdom paintings with his commissioning of El Greco in 1582 to paint The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. The painting depicts an episode from late Roman history when the Roman general, Maurice, and his legion were butchered for refusing to persecute Christians in Gaul. The king, however, was quite disappointed in the painting and eventually rejected it, apparently because the Greek master did not "cut to the chase", so to speak. El Greco chose not to emphasise the beheading itself (relegated to an insignificant corner of the canvas) but instead, the moment in which St. Maurice and his aides decided to mutiny against Roman authority. In the upper realms of the canvas, angels bear the soul of the saint along with the crown and palms, which the artist chose to symbolise martyrdom, to the glories of heaven. Ironically, despite the royal snub, the compositional elements of El Greco's rejected painting tended to set the standard for martyrdoms for the next 150 years.
Nicholas Poussin further evolved and refined the compositional formula with his Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1627). With a few exceptions, but several minor variations, the standard martyrdom formula involved the graphic depiction of the saint and his particular means of torture and death prominently displayed in the foreground while the reason for his martyrdom fell into the background along with a delegation of angels descending from heaven with El Greco's obligatory crown and palms usually in the upper left portion of the canvas. In the case of St Erasmus, he's depicted very much alive having his intestines, attached to a windlass, unwound from the open abdomen of his semi-nude body while a pagan priest points to a Roman idol which the saint refused to worship. As with the El Greco martyrdom, the episode dates from the rule of Diocletian around 303 CE.
There were notable exceptions to the typical martyrdom formula, however. Caravaggio, for instance, never one to be bound by any formulaic treatment, paints us a largely empty canvas in which the action, The Beheading of St John the Baptist, is dramatically confined to the lower left quadrant of the canvas where a jailer directs the executioner to sever the head of the saint, pointing to the plate borne by Salome. Off to the right, two other prisoners observe the slaying while the whole upper half of the canvas is enveloped in an oppressive darkness.
Just the opposite tack was taken by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta in his 1723 St James Led to Martyrdom. Whereas Caravaggio painting is cold-bloodedly murderous, in Piazzetta's tightly composed work, his figure of a robust, though elderly, St. James struggles to escape with his hand-written holy scriptures against the restraining bonds of his would-be captor. With its strong diagonals and rugged muscularity, this very Romantic depiction seems to cut to a chase in which the ultimate outcome is not apparent but rather known only by the title of the work. In this rather late painting from the time in which the popularity of martyrdoms was on the decline, Piazzetta has, in effect, zeroed in on the chase itself, instead of the bloody collision and death and final, heavenly credits at the end.