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The Crowning with Thorns

The Crowning with Thorns

Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488-1576). Musée du Louvre- Paris. Around 1542.

The Crowning with Thorns

Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488-1576). Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Around 1570.

The Mocking of Christ

Edouard Manet (1832-1883). The Art Institute of Chicago – Chicago. 1865.

Tiziano Vecellio painted two versions of the ‘Mocking of Christ’ or ‘Crowning with Thorns’. The first picture dates from around 1542 and is in the Louvre of Paris. The second dates from around 1570 and is in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich. Although in these two works of art the scene and compositions resemble each other much, there are notable differences that show the altering style of an ageing artist.

Titian was born around 1488-1489 but he always made a mystery of the date of his birth, claiming to be older than he really was. Around 1542 he was in his fifties and at the maturity of his art. He worked for the Emperor Charles V. He had been knighted in 1533 and throughout the 1540’s he indulged in the admiration of the Emperor. He participated in the German Diet meetings of Augsburg. Italy was still in principle a part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, even though most of the cities pledged to independence. Titian painted major portraits of Charles V and of Empress Isabella. He had many princely patrons in Italy among whom the Farnese family. Pope Paul III was a Farnese and Titian worked around 1546 also in Rome for that Pope.

Titian had a very clear style of painting in the 1540’s. His ‘Mocking of Christ’ is painted in well-defined forms. Areas are filled delicately with full colours and no adjacent areas have the same colour. The brushstrokes are exact, smooth, well defined and adjacent patches never overlap. The colours are pure, contrasting and in certain area’s very bright. The scene of the picture is more in front of the entry of a prison or cellar than inside dark rooms. The scene is set outside on the large stairs leading to the prison, maybe still inside the Praetorium of Pilate’s palace.

Jesus is mocked at the entry of the prison, to be even more tortured later within darker walls. This has allowed Titian to use more light so that the colours are brighter and full light falls on the figure of Jesus. This colour then is Venetian and the pure areas form the figures. But the ‘Crowning with Thorns’ is one of the most Florentine pictures of Titian. One senses a strong underlying drawing. Jesus’ figure is very in light, almost painted in white colour. Titian attracts the attention of the viewer thus immediately to a Jesus in suffering. The figure is fully in pain and this is also the only emotion to be read on Jesus’ tormented face. The limbs of Jesus are delicate in the light. Titian even suggested the finer nature of Jesus such as in the long legs that are almost without muscular structure.

The scene of the ‘Mocking of Christ’ is very violent. Titian had entered a period in which he may have been influenced by the growing violence of the Reformation in Germany with the wars between the Protestants and Charles V. He had heard of the sack of Rome of 1527 by the Emperor’s hired mercenaries. He lived the tensions caused in Italy by the Counter Reformation actions of the Popes and the Vatican States. Violence is in the gestures of the soldiers. Jesus is already crowned with thorns and these thorns are being pressed into his flesh by the relentless, brutal force of the long reeds the soldiers hold on the crown of thorns. It would be difficult to paint a crueller scene with such directness of torture and pain. We feel ourselves how the long thorns scrape the bone of Jesus’ skull bones. The torture is not just physically present, but aimed at Jesus’ mind as the thorns try to penetrate the head.

The soldiers encroach on Jesus. They surround and envelop him so that he cannot move, escape, breathe. Titian painted even the half-nude guard to the left as a very heavy and squat man in order to emphasise the pressure of bodies onto Jesus. The composition of the scene further stresses this pressure by the lines of the rods, but also by the lines of the bodies that are all directed to Jesus’ head. One senses therefore even more the moral pressure on Jesus. The picture represents a mocking of Christ, so Jesus is already wearing the purple robe, which was an excellent means for Titian to bring Jesus in the colour of suffering. Titian’s realistic art is fully displayed in the folds of Jesus’ robe and in the yellow robe and white trousers of the left guard. The two guards on the right have knelt on the stairs, seemingly revering Jesus, and one soldier holds the other in mocking tenderness. Mocking and haughty also is the bust of the Roman Emperor Tiberius set high over the entry of the hall.

Titian has added borders in the painting. The horizontal beam of the door entry answers the horizontal limits of the stairs on the lower part of the wooden frame. Here are written the words ‘Tiberius Caesar’. These horizontal lines reduce the long vertical dimensions of the frame to the scene of pressure on Jesus. The lines compress the picture. There are no vertical, stable lines in the scene itself. All lines are angular, diagonal, brutal and nervous. There is also much expression of volume, expression of three-dimensionality, of figures round and almost protruding out of the picture such as the soldier clad in the coat of mail on the front right.

The painting was made on commission. It was necessary to please people of Northern Italy and this may explain the clarity and brilliance of the picture. The ‘Mocking of Christ’ was made for the church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan. The picture was taken away by French Revolutionary Commissars in 1797 and brought to the Louvre in Paris. When in 1815 the Allied Controllers returned masterpieces to Italy, this picture was left in the Louvre.

A wholly different image is Titian’s late remake of the ‘Mocking of Christ’. Titian was around eighty years old now. Historians may claim that he was only seventy, but both ages are sufficiently old for Titian to have felt at the end of his life. In any case Titian was an old man. He had radically changed in tone of painting. Death was much on his mind. His later paintings included many themes associated with death. The ‘Death of Actaeon’, Actaeon devoured by his own dogs, the ‘Mocking of Christ’, Saint Sebastian, were scenes he undertook then.

We might call the later version of the ‘Mocking of Christ’ of Tiziano ‘the other side’. Jesus is inside the dark hall, maybe on the other side of the lit Praetorium. The stairs are still there, but the door entry is a round Roman arch and the horizontal beams were not necessary anymore. Many details have become vague. The scene in the hall is lit dimly by a high torch-holder and its whirling flames. The clarity of forms and the rich pure colours of the earlier work have disappeared. All is darkness and shadows. The forms are delineated in rapid, sinewy brushstrokes. The play of light and shadows form the volumes, but much of the earlier three-dimensionality has disappeared. Only the colour and shadows build the picture.

Jesus is more resigned in this painting of Titian. The pressure on Jesus’ head is still very present, but more sublimated and less explicit. The reeds are held more aside and in front of Jesus’ head, they do not seem to press down so much. The figures also are painted more in darkness, thus more anonymous and less pressing onto Jesus.

What has remained in this later picture of Titian is only the suffering of Jesus. The suffering is the essence now of the picture. Neither explicit form nor pure colours were necessary to please anymore, nor the intellectual image of the pressure on Jesus. Suffering is the essence of the scene in the Gospels and suffering is the centre of the image. Titian only expressed the concept of torture and the suffering of the Redeemer. Forms, dimensions, colours flow instinctively into the sombre background and seem now to want to draw Jesus into the back of the hall, into oblivion.

Titian remained a colourist however also in this painting, his second version. For although the tones are very subdued in this and in other of his later paintings, he did remember the earlier richness of his palette in delicate patches of pure colours in the front soldier and in spare details. This figure of the forefront seems to want to rally life again into Jesus. It has been argued that Titian’s later paintings, such as this ‘Mocking of Christ’, were unfinished pictures. Titian painted over long periods, adding colours over first layouts. But the colour patches are already so diligently placed here, and the rest of the colours so full and complete that the conjecture does not seem to hold.

The figures of Titian’s late ‘Mocking of Christ’ seem to melt into the world around them and their forms appear out of the surrounding matter. Titian’s late vision is a dark, pessimistic vision. It is still extremely powerful, reduced as subject to the essential concepts of an image. Thus ultimately were the darkest moments of Jesus’ life when abandoned by everybody, mocked, tortured, and thrown in a cellar he waited for the hour of his death. Together with Titian’s Saint Sebastian, another picture of death and probably the last picture of Titian, we have with this version of the ‘Mocking of Christ’ a picture of a painter who has imagined the depths of despair just before the moment of death. Titian must have felt intimate with loneliness, despair and death at his old age.

Edouard Manet

Very different from these pictures is Edouard Manet’s ‘Mocking of Christ’. It is a rare painting for various reasons. Manet (1832-1883) was a painter of a period between several powerful styles in nineteenth century French art. The new French Classicism of the beginning of the century with Jacques Louis David and Auguste Dominique Ingres had been followed by the realism of Corot and others. An evolution to further daring in colours and composition would lead to Impressionist painting. The passion of Romanticism showing wild emotions and exotic scenes was another of the mainstreams of French painting. In French political life of the nineteenth century the laity of the state frequently clashed with the Romantic revival of religious thought. Amidst all that was the intellectual Manet who tried to introduce a realistic, raw way of painting of everyday scenes but with an intellectual twist and underlying hidden symbolic meaning that were exercises in style. Manet founded his novelty in the representation of the subject and in the juxtaposition of uncommon elements that could shock an audience. Manet took old subjects of Renaissance or other early paintings and transposed those in his own times. While doing this he transformed the subject and the representation in a novel way. Edouard Manet was a strange renovator, interested in the contrast between old and new image, yet apparently devoid of emotions.

French painting was mainly secular since the Revolution of the end of the eighteenth century. French painters like David and Ingres referred to classic themes of antiquity to represent the higher aspirations of man. For less spiritual themes they applied portraiture. Ingres would occasionally paint a religious scene, but overall French society of the nineteenth century, and especially the bourgeois wealthy middle class preferred non-religious scenes. The Romantic movement of literature could introduce Christianity again and lay emphasis on religious faith, but this mainstream did not really break through in the pictorial arts. Even in Romantic paintings, non-religious themes and representation of pure emotion in oriental motifs were preferred to the spiritualism of Catholic Christianism. Exceptions existed, such as in Lyon, far from Paris, where worked for instance Louis Janmot. In the pictorial arts then the Romantic Movement sought escape from reality, either literally in oriental themes or in violent emotions. Painters of this tendency were Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault. As a reaction to Romanticism came the Realists who tried to get back to basic values of everyday, and to uncomplicated life. Gustave Courbet and Camille Corot thereby returned to nature.

The search for transcendence was strong and undefeated however. But transcendence and spirituality could not be found in religion for French society of Paris did not have the strong religious feelings anymore, not the admiration, not the education, not the basis for appreciation of religious themes. The only alternative for artists was to look for transcendence in the prevalent themes, in the description of nature itself. So entered the Impressionists with their inquisitive, profound view of the landscape. The Impressionists sought to elevate images of nature to the ultimo of sublimation and thus to find a substitute for the old spirituality of religion.

After a century of this quest for spirituality in material subject matter, the recognition of pure spirituality of the mind was inevitable. The Symbolist movement was created. The Symbolists represented mind-themes and they would also return slowly to religious themes even though hesitatingly, for the secularity of French society had remained dominant. The drive for spirituality then continued in abstract art, founded by people of whom some of the most prominent artists were members of occult societies such as the Theosophists. And later still, Surrealism sought spirituality again in the mind, now in the erratic, spontaneous and chaotic appearance of images of dreams. Around the First World War certain Expressionists returned to religious themes and remarkably, the most religious Expressionist of all was a Frenchman, Georges Rouault.

The French nineteenth century governing society however, remained very secular in the tradition of the Revolution, of the Republic and of the Philosophers of the Enlightenment Rousseau, Diderot and Voltaire. The measure was man and not religion. So, Manet’s religious scene of the ‘Mocking of Christ’ is a rare exception in French art of that century. Manet again sought renovation. But was he in search of spirituality?

Manet’s painting is without background. This can be accepted when one considers that the mocking of Jesus may have taken place in a prison or an inner hall of a dark palace. Many painters before Manet, such as Titian, had represented the scene in a dark setting. The most powerful painters rarely had need of a filled background such as a wide landscape for their forceful representations of Jesus. Suffering had to take place against the darkness of the cosmos alone. Manet took this style element of the genius artists of the past, the concept of darkness, just a bit further to total blackness. In his scene Jesus is almost nude. But Manet’s Jesus is idealised again, as was less the habit in previous centuries, in which Jesus had been totally humanised. Manet returned to the very earliest representations of Christ, of Gothic and of early Renaissance.

Jesus is not painted in realistic detail. His body is not muscular, nor emaciated. The body forms are painted rapidly, with a few suggesting features, as to their volumes. The contours of the body are clear. The whiteness of Jesus’ body is in direct contrast with the background and in conflict with it. This contrast was also an old style feature of the contrast between light and darkness, but here stylised to its simplest expression in the difference between black and white. The figures are not made by the play of shadows; they are simply imposed upon the black background.

Jesus’ body is not represented in intricate detail, not because Manet had not enough talent of line, form or colour. Manet showed in the same painting his delicate and accomplished skills for detail. Look for instance at the three guards surrounding Jesus. The guards have volume and are detailed. Jesus is one-dimensional. Manet did not show here the triumph of Jesus and the triumph of the church, but the pitiless truth that in a large part of French intellectual society Jesus had remained a flat message. In a strange sense, this is a picture with the outward aspirations of spirituality but the inward lack of transcendence.

The strangeness of emotions continues in the guards. One is knelt, which according to the title should be a mocking stand. This guard presents to Jesus a long reed as sceptre. A bearded soldier stands to the left, but he remains in a protective and respectful position. The third soldier, on the right, holds open the purple robe to envelop Jesus. This guard also seems to be respecting Jesus however. He poses as if a photograph was taken of him and he confronts the viewer directly instead of concentrating on Jesus.

The scene as imagined by Manet is thus very ambivalent. The image is destined to put the viewer in all the details on a wrong foot. The scene is almost Titian’s composition, but Manet has played around with the figures and the meaning. This is a play of composition, of colours and forms and of intent. It was the kind of internal conflict, skewedness of old representations that Manet sought and that are probably not so well recognised in his personality. Edouard Manet was not so much interested in the spiritual message of Jesus, nor in the depiction of a human drama. He was interested in using a conventional scene, or a scene of a great master as Titian, and then taking the separate elements of such pictures very delicately a step further towards renovation of representation. Due to this, the painting became more an exercise in style than a powerful picture of one of the most dramatic periods in the passion of Jesus Christ. The art critic Michael Fried expressed Manet’s innovation as follows in 1964: ‘Manet emphasises the flatness of the picture-surface by eschewing modelling and (as in the Déjeuner) refusing to depict depth convincingly, calls attention to the limits of the canvas by truncating extended forms with the framing-edge, and underscores the rectangular shape of the picture-support by aligning with it, more or less conspicuously, various elements within the painting. ‘ G86. Edouard Manet was one of the first truly modernist artists who started to reflect on the very elements of the form of art of painting.

Other paintings:

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