I am a fortunate man having been able to see great works of art. One of the strangest experiences was viewing Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross in Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent. The adjectives which came to mind were chaotic, dark, cramped and malicious. Serenity is seen in the faces of Christ and St. Veronica. What was Bosch trying to say behind the familiar via dolorosa?
I am aware that Bosch had painted two other paintings of Christ Carrying the Cross, one in Vienna at the Kunsthistorices Museum and the other at the Palacio Real, Madrid. How are all three similar? How do they differ?
This panel was once the left panel of a triptych. The rest probably showed scenes from the Passion. There are two action scenes in this painting. In the upper registry Christ moves toward Calvary. In the lower registry the Good and Bad Thieves have arrived.
On the left, soldiers torment the Bad Thief who is being counseled by an exotic man in a red cloak with a strange cap and carrying a shield. On the right side, the Good Thief kneels before a priest. There is a frantic intensity of his confession, well-expressed by the open-mouthed profile, which contrasts vividly with the passive response of the priest who seems to suppress a yawn. The very presence of the priest is probably inspired by what Bosch had witnessed at contemporary executions; the same motif appears in the great multi-figure Christ Carrying the Cross which Pieter Bruegel the Elder was to paint almost a century later.
Christ is the center of the painting surrounded by a densely packed crowd. As will be seen in the Ghent painting, here there are no supportive images of St. Veronica or Simon of Cyrene. Here there is only evil intent, as seen in the shield with the giant toad held by the man who leads the procession. Christ bears his torturous journey alone.
It is not only the Cross which weakens Christ. Christ’s agony is heightened by the spike-studded wooden blocks which dangle fore and aft from his waist, lacerating his feet and ankles with every step. This was a device of torture used in Bosch’s day to increase the pain of criminals on the road to execution. It was frequently represented by Dutch artists well into the sixteenth century.
Some art historians have commented that this is what St. Joseph is making in the right panel of the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin which would be in keeping with the instruments of the Passion which litter his table and floor.
While viewing Cathedrals one often forgets the treasure that can be found in their sacristies. While viewing paintings one forgets the import of the reverse side of diptychs, triptychs or panels.
In 1923 while removing paint from the reverse side of Christ Carrying the Cross, an enigmatic Bosch figure was discovered. The image is often entitle “Boy With a Whirligig.” The interpretation of the image has been contested.
One interpretation has been to see the child as a symbol of folly for those who fail to recognize the meaning of Christ’s suffering and live life as His followers. Some see the figure as the Christ Child taking his first halting steps toward His destiny on Calvary. Other see the whirligig as a “walking mill” and therefore associated with the Eucharist. The blades of the mill are seen to reflect the Cross. With the eyes of faith the exterior anticipates the interior and challenges the viewer.
Here Christ is not alone. While surrounded by the mob in caricature Christ is accompanied by Simon of Cyrene, St. Veronica and the Good and Bad Thieves. Veronica holds the imprinted face of Christ on her veil. The two faces of Jesus contrast sharply with the horrible faces around them.
Bosch imbues the mob with faces of sin. Here humanity is ugly and full of evil. They externally bear the marks of their inner torment, as contrasted with the serene faces of Jesus and Veronica. José de Sigüenza, a 16th-century Spanish author, wrote: “The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact that the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him the way he is on the inside.”
This dramatic panel is “one of the most hallucinatory creations of the history of Western art”, in the words of Bosch expert Paul van den Broeck.
A reminder, most of the paintings by Bosch are religious, but at the same time, they are a critical analysis of the world and its human inhabitants. Bosch often does that in a highly ingenious way. This Christ Carrying the Cross demonstrates how deeply Bosch felt and identified with the suffering of Christ. This empathy fits in with the teachings of the late-medieval devotional movements from Bosch’s time, which saw Jesus as a lonely and resigned man who conquered the sins of the ugly and even bestial world all on his own. For Bosch Christ is the one to follow because He alone can forgive our ugliness (sin) and call us to a new beauty (grace.) . This is the message Bosch wanted to convey here.
Bosch places the head of Christ at the crossing of two diagonal composition lines. One diagonal follows the beam of the Cross, from the head of Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped to carry Christ’s Cross, to the “bad thief” at the bottom right, who was crucified beside Christ. The second diagonal runs from the bottom left, with Veronica’s sudarium, to the pallid face of the “good thief” in the upper-right corner. He has the dubious pleasure of the company of a physician – or is it a Pharisee? – and a monk.
Drawing on our walk with Christ in the Ghent Christ Carrying the Cross, it may be good to paraphrase the ancient prayer to Santiago de Compostela:
Be for us our companion on our daily walks,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our shelter on the way,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.
The iconography of the Passion scenes which Bosch painted during his middle and later years are simpler than that of his earlier paintings, their imagery more easily grasped by the viewer. One such work is the Christ Carrying the Cross in the Palacio Real, Madrid. Christ dominates the foreground, almost crushed beneath the heavy Cross which the elderly Simon of Cyrene struggles to lift from his back. The ugly heads of his executioners rise steeply in a mass towards the left; in the distance, the sorrowing Virgin collapses into the arms of John the Evangelist. Whereas Bosch’s earlier composition of this subject in Vienna had been diffuse and primarily narrative, the Madrid version is concentrated, and the way that Christ ignores his captors to look directly at the spectator gives it the quality of a timeless devotional image.
Walter S. Gibson in his work on Bosch states that some critics claim that Bosch equated the historical tormenters of Christ with humankind at large whose daily wickedness continues to torture Christ after his Resurrection. This concept of ‘Perpetual Passion’ was not uncommon in Bosch’s day. But is this what the face of Jesus is saying? Could it not be less an accusation and more an appeal to the viewer found within Matthew 16:24: ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me”?
I would like to conclude the three Bosch works on Christ Carrying the Cross with a prayer attached to a fifteenth century woodcut with the same theme.
O dear Lord, Jesus Christ,
as thou has carried thy cross,
so grant me, dear Lord.
that I also patiently bear all adversity and sorrows which may befall me,
that I therewith lay low all villainy and temptation of the body
and of the battle over evil spirits.