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Christ wears the Cross

Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Museum voor Schone Kunsten – Gent.

Christ wearing the Cross

Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556). Musée du Louvre- Paris. 1526.

John tells that after the last appeal of Pilate, they took charge of Jesus and carrying his own cross he went out to the Place of the Skull, or as it is called in Hebrew, Golgotha.

Luke recalls that as they were leading Jesus away they seized on a man, Simon from Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and made him shoulder the cross and carry it behind Jesus. Large numbers of people followed him, and women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For look, the days are surely coming when people will say, “Blessed are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne children, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on me!” to the hills, “Cover us!” For if this is what is done to green wood, what will be done when the wood is dry?” Now they were also leading two others, criminals, to be executed with him. G38

Mark confirmed the story that Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus, helped Jesus to carry the cross. Matthew tells the same. When a man of great sensitivity goes to such an ordeal as to have to carry his cross up the road to Calvary, the mountain of the skulls, even though someone is summoned to help carry the heavy wood, he turns inside. The world is concentrated into his mind and the suffering becomes very private amidst the crowd. There is no communication with the people around. There remains only a rejection of everything, a denial, and a definite and final separation between the person and all surrounding him. Such may have been the emotions of the man Jesus, although as the Son of God he might have felt an immense compassion despite the ignominy of the act and the ignorance of the Jews. Jesus’ passion was shameful because it happened in a place of shame, the Calvary, where criminals received their last punishment. It was humiliating because the punishment was unjust, Jesus had done no harm and he had not deceived.

The two paintings that have tried to capture this idea are the ‘Carrying of the Cross’ of Hieronymus Bosch and of Lorenzo Lotto. Bosch must have been born somewhere around 1450 in the small town of ‘sHertogenbosch in the north of Brabant, these days a town of the Netherlands. He died in 1516 and worked mostly in Antwerp as almost every painter of importance of the beginning of that century in Belgium and the Netherlands. He had an enormous and skewed fantasy. Bosch dwelled in monstrosities and in ugly images of hell and pain. He was a skilled painter, but lacked in many basic techniques of his trade. He did not well know perspective, and he rarely foreshortened his figures. He was a good landscape painter but had difficulty in creating three dimensionality and depth in his pictures. We suppose he was not much interested in these pictorial, stylistic techniques. He expressed ideas in the crudest, most direct way possible and obtained his effects by showing individual images instead of by composition, colour, form and harmony of image.

Bosch’s ‘Carrying the Cross’ is thus also an easy picture, with a simple emotion and a simple psychology. The picture shows a horrible crowd of faces. Jesus’ face is in the middle and a beam of wood emerges to the upper left. The shape of the cross is not even hinted at. We only see a rectangle in the colours of wood come out of the crowd. This leads to the middle face, but that face is the least conspicuous and the most neutral of the picture. There is nothing to note on this face, no suffering, and no emotion whatsoever. The face has almost closed eyes and thus is the centre of a retracted universe, closed on itself. This, Jesus’ face then, is surrounded by the obsessive heads of monsters as only Bosch could imagine. Bosch expressed hatred in these heads, devilish rejection, grins, mockery and scorn, derisive laughter and contempt. Jesus is amidst all that abhorrence, oblivious but these emotions turn around him and catch him in geometric strictness. Because there is strict symmetry underlying this picture.

Jesus and the line of the cross form one diagonal. One can discern the other diagonal of the frame as formed by other faces. Then the faces come in groups of three, reflecting in a strange way each time the global composition of the picture, for each group of three heads has one central face that is looked at scornfully by the two other. Thus the central theme is repeated four times in the four triangles of the picture formed by the two diagonals. In the lower left corner the central figure is Saint Veronica holding the Holy Shroud. When a face seems isolated and not participating in these intimate triangles, it has a particular function. Thus to the right a soldier’s head leads the procession and Simon of Cyrene on the right holds the cross. These figures do not look at the rest of the scene. The soldier looks straight forward; Simon is intent on the cross and his hands are held high on the wood.

The picture is of course exquisitely painted in various soft and harmonious colours that almost seem to want to soften in a sarcastic way the true devilish message of the picture. Bosch here was a powerful painter with a vivid imagination and with a forceful potential to live himself into the interiorisation of Jesus on the way to Calvary.

Lorenzo Lotto

A very similar image is Lorenzo Lotto’s ‘Carrying of the Cross’. Lotto was a contemporary of Bosch, but he worked in the south, in Venice. He lived from 1480 to 1536. His picture dates from 1526. It takes the idea of Hieronymus Bosch, but it shows a much softer image. Jesus is again the centre and other figures surround Jesus, but these are really only hinted at since we see only arms, the wood of a lance and part of a figure. But here also suffering is interiorised at the point of oblivion of the environment and in the same very powerful concept.

Jesus is more present in Lotto’s picture. He seems a nice older man, almost carefully and tenderly carrying the cross. The colours are important, clear, and pure. Bosch and Lotto had a lot in common as personalities. We do not know too much of Bosch’s life and of his psychology, but his picture shows an obsession with the ugly and with all that was extraordinary in life and he had a very particular lonely vision of pictures. Somewhat of that lonely vision can be found too in Lotto’s art. Lotto remained outside Venetian society and preferred to work in the marshes of the lagoons. He also sought his images inside himself and in his later age he retired into an abbey.

Bosch was a man of Northern Europe, Lotto a man of Southern Europe. Bosch worked in Antwerp, a port much directed towards the trade with the Baltic and the former Hanseatic cities. Lotto was a Venetian and worked for Venice, a port directed towards the Arabic countries, towards Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. What they had in common was their humanity, their obsession and power of feeling into the depths of Jesus’ emotions on the road to Calvary. They were both very exclusive painters with visions all their own, coming from the depths of their mind. Lotto and Bosch fully concentrated on the human Jesus, and less so on the spiritual God. They emphasised how Jesus the human suffered and were very interiorised in that search.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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