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Christ leaves the Praetorium

Christ leaves the Praetorium

Gustave Doré (1832-1883). Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain. Strasbourg. 1872.

When Pilate gave his verdict to hand over Jesus to the people of Jerusalem, to do with him as they pleased. Jesus was led away and a large crowd o people followed him. There were many women mourning and lamenting. Jesus told these not to weep for him, but to cry for themselves and for their children, predicting disasters on them. As Jesus moved forward, the crowd ordered a man, Simon from Cyrene, who had just arrived from the country, to carry the cross behind Jesus. They brought Jesus to Golgotha. Of the four Evangelists, only John wrote that Jesus carried his cross to Calvary. Matthew, mark and Luke tell that Jesus marched through the crowd followed by Simon from Cyrene, who carried the cross.

Gustave Doré made a gigantic picture of Jesus leaving the Praetorium, descending the steps of the roman building and advancing amidst a wild crowd. Doré’s painting measures six meter by nine meter and it is one of the several very large pictures that Doré dedicated to religious themes. The painting was made in Paris, during very troubled times for France. Doré started working on it in 1867 but he had to bury it during the siege of Paris by the Germans, a war the French lost and which would cost Napoleon III his throne, and during the ensuing Paris Commune Revolt. He dug it up and completed it in 1872. he had seen movements of the masses by then and the outcry of passion of the people of Paris. The main feature of Doré’s painting is the massing of the Jews around Jesus and the contrast between the serene, white innocence of Jesus and the pressing of the excited people.

Doré’s painting was acquired by the Strasbourg Museum in 1988. The painting had a strange history until then. It had been sent by Doré to London to be exhibited there. Then it toured in the United States and was lost there, until it was discovered again in a warehouse in 1997. it then went through the hands of various owners. Gustave Doré was born in Strasbourg, so the painting ended in Doré’s home town, as the city of Strasbourg bought it in honour of one of its most famous children.

Although Gustave Doré was born in the Alsacian region of France, he moved to Paris with his parents when he was fifteen years old. He was already a child prodigy, and drawings of him, made when he was about five years old, still exist. When he was twelve he carved his own lithographic stones to illustrate stories. It seems that when he arrived in Paris, Doré burst into the shop of a publisher to show his engravings. The publisher, Charles Philipon immediately accepted Doré’s drawings. Then, in the early 1850’s, Doré took the initiative once more and contacted Louis Hachette, another, now famous, Parisian publisher. Doré made thousands of drawings for Philipon and Hachette, illustrating the works of Dante, Rabelais, Balzac, Cervantes, and many more authors. He illustrated fairy tale collections, the fables of La Fontaine and the adventures of the Baron von Munchausen. He made engravings for several editions of the Bible, so he knew the Bible well. Gustave Doré became the best known illustrator of France. He was more popular and famous even in England. In 1867 a gallery was opened in London that displayed his engravings and paintings. The Doré Gallery existed for about twenty-five years and from out of that gallery, which Doré set up in the mid sixties, his paintings also toured in the United States. Doré had a large workshop in Paris and managed to continue his main business, illustrations for books, while painting his huge colour pictures in oil on canvas. He even started to sculpt around 1870. Doré became the most proficient and popular illustrator of the nineteenth century and many of his engravings continue to be the ultimate representation we still remember and use of figures such as Don Quixote or the ‘Chat Botté’. His drawings were brilliant, imaginative to fantastic, elegant, detailed and surprising. Doré drew and engraved very quickly, with a never floundering imagination. Also in his later, huge paintings he never shied away from depicting much detail. Although the profusion of detail he presented a subject, such as the main figure, in the centre of attention of the picture, and left no doubt in the viewer’s mind on the main topic of his work. He usually drew backgrounds and landscapes in fine detail and brought various additional personages in his pictures. We see this preference also in his painting of ‘Christ leaving the Praetorium’. Jesus walks majestically but humbly down the stairs of Pilate’s Praetorium. His is the centre of light and the centre of all attention. Although the crowd and the soldiers are occupied with themselves or with their neighbours, most of the people look at Jesus. Jesus stands in the exact middle of the painting and the light radiates from his body to the scene, from his head and from his pure, white gowns. Doré’s Jesus leaves the Praetorium unharmed, untortured, and not diminished in dignity. Jesus emits light over the diagonals of the frame. There seem to be four shafts of light to radiate along the diagonals and Gustave Doré painted the people along these diagonals of light. One remarks the people in the light, many however remain in the shadows. The effects of light in Doré’s picture are dramatic, epic and very obvious, so obvious as to seem mannered to us now, artificial, over-emphasised. Doré enhanced much the mysticism and divinity of Jesus by this effect. By contrasting the glowing brilliance of Jesus with the mobbing, chaotic lines and colours of the crowd, Doré brought to preponderance the serene, pure, divine nature of Christ and he underscored the difference between Jesus and the people, between divinity and humanity. Around Jesus are so many people, Jews, women, me, soldiers, poor and rich, that the sole brilliance of Jesus receives easily first all attention form the viewer, seeking rest in an otherwise chaotic mass of patches of colours. Doré painted so many details of figures that they do not disturb finally his message, but strengthen it. Here is Jesus the Divine, the Pure and innocent, striding unhindered to his fate and the crowds open amply to let him through, despite the pushing and the throbbing pressure of the people. Pressure there is. Doré even painted a small scene in the higher left part of the painting, of a man having fainted and being pulled up a balustrade to get more air and breathe better.

The crowd widens beneath, opening, giving way, but in a broad way, opening wide, so that the composition along the diagonals open too. The view opens along the diagonals. Beneath it opens in the crowd, in the upper part it opens to the skies and to the menacing dark clouds. The design of composition supports the oblique cross of the light radiating along the diagonals. Gustave Doré never attended any academy of painting, so we can absolve him from having used traditional, well-known elements of composition. He found out by himself a structure that suited his narrative and that consists of an open V-structure towards the skies and an inverted open V below the diagonals. Doré radiated light in between and thus came to an original and very dramatic design.

Gustave Doré was a great draughtsman and also a marvellous colourist. ‘Christ leaving the Praetorium’ shows harmonious and yet interesting colours, used around Jesus in varied alteration. Doré mastered the gradations of hues, tones and intensities of colours in agreeable ways and he knew well where to apply emphasis through the use of brighter hues such as yellow or orange, versus smaller scenes that needed to remain in the shadow parts of his paintings. Here he used appropriately the lower intensity browns, greys and green hues.

There is an obstacle to the unhindered path of Jesus. That obstacle is the wooden cross. It lies ominously, straight in Jesus’ path, blocking his freedom, confining him and endangering him. Simon from Cyrene already supports the beams. But Simon will follow Jesus, wearing the heavy wood. He will not force the cross on Jesus. Gustave Doré has not really solved the contradictions in the stories of the Evangelists, but he leaves no doubt that this Jesus will not carry the cross. Jesus will lead and Simon will follow him. Jesus will look at the cross and pass it. Nobody will dare to force the cross on Jesus, not on a figure of this transcendent light. Gustave Doré saw Jesus as the Divine Light of the World. If he did not himself believe in the New testament writings, he depicted Jesus like all believers would have liked Jesus to have been on his road to Calvary. This is the image that Christians prefer of Jesus, how they imagine the scene in the zeal of their fate. Gustave Doré had a keen intuition for enhancing the emotions of viewers, maybe just because he had never been to an academy and was dedicated to the essence of a scene and of its emotions. He knew how to illustrate a scene for maximum impact, according to maximum expectance. Doré painted in his own style, which was quite expressive. He painted so in times when Academicist tendencies were still very strong and when Impressionism was spreading (Doré’s paintings were not the only ones to be buried in the 1870 French-German war: Camille Pissarro’s canvases were abandoned by the artist when he fled to London and trampled upon by German cavalry in his house). Doré however had a natural talent and genius; he worked so hard on his own that he had discovered by trial and error the style forms, compositions and effects that were most useful to his drawings. His ‘Christ leaving the Praetorium’ therefore realised an original view. Doré had experimented and used many effects of light versus shadows in his drawings. In his huge oil painting he imagined an oblique cross of light that responded to the wooden cross of Jesus’ crucifixion, and that became his composition. Jesus was not for Doré one individual among a throbbing crowd, in the midst of anger, fear, cries, accusations, jeers, insults, even beatings, among the sweat and close contact of bodies and breaths, like Jerome Bosch or Lorenzo lotto had imagined Jesus in this scene. Jesus must have been the divine apparition of brilliance that forced the crowds to make space for Jesus. This was how Christians saw Christ in their minds, the symbol of faith. Doré saw not Jesus the man, but Jesus the symbol.

Paintings like this ‘Christ leaving the Praetorium’ make us reflect now on how such an image of Jesus could be formed in our minds, and also on which image was the one that really could be seen, happened in Jerusalem that tragic day of Christ’s crucifixion. Maybe Jesus was but a wounded, tortured, stained, insulted and humbled man among a shrieking and gesticulating crowd of curious and offended Jews, dragging himself to his shameful death like the lowest criminal, so exhausted as to be have been unable to carry his cross. Maybe Jesus was indeed enveloped in a radiating light so that people automatically and maybe silently, weeping, made ample way for him and so that nobody had dared to stain his dignity by having him to carry the cross, so that Simon of Cyrene had to follow him. Maybe the scene was something in between. Reality would probably have been the first description, but Christians tend to believe the second. We are thus seeking what really happened, but only the very short descriptions of the New testament stories have come to us, factual in narrative and without many details. The Evangelists remained very brief on how Jesus walked to Calvary. We know it happened, which is the most essential, but we know not how it happened. The epic starts only in the New Testament stories when death nears Jesus, when the skies darken and when Jesus cries out to his Father, to god. The Evangelists wrote stories told by eyewitnesses, or stories remembered from oral narratives, a generation later. They wrote from close times, but they remain very dry and do not relate much the feelings of individuals among the crowds.

Gustave Doré also must have made such reflections on this, his subject of the painting and thought about various possible depictions of Jesus. For Gustave Doré there was no doubt; Jesus was the Divine.

Clement Greenberg once wrote that if there was an avant-garde in art there should also be an ‘arrière-garde’, a rear guard. In his original article he wrote that Academicist art that repeated traditional style forms and that was dedicated to imitation of nature must be this rear guard, which he called kitsch and despised. Later, he relativised his article and even called it arrogant. We agree with his later statements. Gustave Doré made with ‘Christ leaving the Praetorium’ a figurative painting that aimed to communicate a message from the bible, that was thus literary in objective, and that also exploited composition structures that were taught in academies –even if Doré had never followed courses in an academy. He painted the sky in a traditional ‘open V’, even if only a partial such structure, and the opening of the road before Jesus is an ‘inverted open V’. Yet, his composition of the cross of light along the diagonals, emanating like rays from Jesus, was original. Doré found intuitively strong effects of epic and mysticism. He had a genuine genius talent. He was not a revolutionary avant-garde painter in his ways of depiction. He loved drawing too much and though he was ambitious he stayed close to his aims of illustrator. He succeeded nevertheless with ease in being original. Only the most intelligent and most gifted artists prevail in bringing such work. That work was no avant-garde but neither was it arrière-garde, and it was certainly no kitsch because original. In his ostentatious display of a certain image of figures like Jesus Christ, Gustave Doré invited the viewers to reflect on faith itself, on the true meaning and genesis of beliefs. Such is great art, whatever the style.

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