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The Flagellation

The Flagellation of Christ at the Column

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio (1570-1610). Musée des Beaux-Arts – Rouen. 1606/1607.

The Flagellation

Piero della Francesca (1410-1492). Galleria Nazionale delle Marche– Urbino. Around 1460.

Matthew tells the last moments of Jesus’ passion in most detail.

After having Jesus scourged, Pilate handed him over to be crucified. Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus with them into the Praetorium and collected the whole cohort around them. And they stripped him and put a scarlet cloak round him, and having twisted some thorns into a crown they put this on his head and placed a reed in his right hand. To make fun of him they knelt to him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spat on him and took the reed and struck him on the head with it. And when they had finished making fun of him, they took off the cloak and dressed him in his own clothes and led him away to crucifixion. G38

The Evangelists do not dwell in many details on Jesus’ scourging of flogging. The only element we know is that it may have happened in the inner part of Pilate’s palace, or the judgement hall, the Praetorium, where colonnades were. Thus imagery usually depicts the flogging of Jesus against a column.

Michelangelo Merisi was brought up in Caravaggio from around 1571 or 1573. As was the habit in Italy for many artists, he was called Il Caravaggio after his home village even though he may actually have been born in Milan. Caravaggio is a village near Milan and Michelangelo’s parents may have fled there from an epidemic of the plague in Milan G48 . He died in Porto d’Ercole, close to Naples, in 1610. He died allegedly of malaria. Caravaggio was thus only around forty years old when he died, but he changed the art of painting in a definite and final way.

Caravaggio learned painting in Milan with Simone Peterzano. He left Milan an orphan for both his parents had died. At scarcely twenty years old he craved for a career in Rome. He first helped in the workshop of Giuseppe Cesari di Arpino, the Cavaliere di Arpino. He soon found cardinals to protect him and to commission pictures to him personally, such as the Cardinal Francesco del Monte. Caravaggio painted cycles for the cardinals’ churches in Rome, the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. He seemed to have had a violent character and was sent to jail already for a short time on a charge of slander to the painter Giovanni Baglioni. He was imprisoned for illegally owning weapons. He fought in a brawl over a lady and injured a notary. Caravaggio fled to Naples, but quickly presented his excuses and returned to Rome. In 1606 a game of balls, a forerunner of our tennis, turned into a fight. Michelangelo and his friend the architect Onorio Longhi were in the fight and an adversary was killed. Caravaggio had suffered an injury too, but he had to leave Rome for he was accused of murder. He escaped to Naples and stayed there the year 1607. That same year however he was already on the island of Malta, working for the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John the Baptist who then held the island and mainly for their Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. Caravaggio was appreciated on Malta, for he received a title of Knight of the Order of Malta. But he was excluded again from the order the same year, and put into prison. He succeeded to escape shortly after. In early 1609 he was in Sicily, in Syracuse. Then he travelled on the island to Messina, later to Palermo.

In late 1609 Caravaggio was in Naples again and suffered an attempt to his life. He was severely wounded in the face by a knife’s stab. He tried to return to Rome by boat, but was arrested by Spanish soldiers yet liberated rapidly. He set out on foot for Rome, maybe to catch another ship further on the coast, and died on a beach near Naples from a fever. It remains unclear whether he died of fever or was reached by soldiers of the Pope or by a wronged Knight of Malta, and murdered G48 .

The art of painting in Italy before Caravaggio was in a period of Mannerism. This style had emerged out of the Renaissance, maybe induced by Michelangelo but enhanced by the lesser painters of his entourage and by Michelangelo’s followers who exaggerated his style elements. At first Michelangelo’s outburst of naked intertwined bodies was represented again and again, then Mannerist images were idealised, as in earlier Gothic but in an entirely different way of representation, modified to sometimes unreasonable forms. The proponents who brought this kind of painting to its extreme were Jacopo Pontormo and more so Il Parmigianino, who depicted very elongated pictures in artificial, mannered poses. Emotions were shown by unnatural gestures and positions. Faces remained typified and impassible. This was thought to best represent spirituality and in religious pictures it was supposed to be necessary to show with this emphasis the dignity and sublime of the apostles, the Saints, the Holy Family and Jesus.

Caravaggio’s roots and affinities lay deeply with the Italian people of the alleys of Rome and Naples. He opposed the artificial compositions and mannered expression of emotions with the realism of immediate sense. He painted natural poses and his figures were very dynamic, very lively and very present in his compositions. To the pure colours of the Florentine Renaissance he opposed more sombre tones and he introduced prominently the contrast between light and dark. The Florentines had used shadows since always, but Caravaggio constructed his figures out of the conflict between light and absence of light. Stating that Caravaggio used sombre tones and introduced the contrast between dark and light in the visual arts is however an inadequate description of the genius that he was.

Caravaggio was a natural genius who presented new visions, colours and compositions in each painting. It is very impossible to typify an artist who evolved so rapidly with each painting and so drastically. After 1600, still his early period, his figures seem to be shaped by the light or to exist only by shafts of light coming from various angles at his scenes. Caravaggio’s figures are thrown at the viewer in a flash of sudden brightness, ready to disappear again in the dark the next moment. In that sudden flash, intense movement is caught. Instead of Mannerism and dignified detachment of subject, Caravaggio thus threw the viewer in the middle of his scenes. A Cupid was so realistically painted as to want to jump out of the canvas; a Jesus suffered so close to us that we could be one of the torturers. This was Baroque pathos, but rendered in a totally realistic and explicit way.

Caravaggio painted his ‘Flagellation of Christ at the Column’ in Naples in 1606-1607, just after he had left Rome. He was bewildered. He had participated in killing a man; he probably had killed the man himself. His conscience tore at him, to the right and to the left, but he could not escape the image in his mind. Such also is the image of Jesus at the column. Jesus tears aside of the column, but his hands are tied and kept to the marble by a soldier of Pilate. Suffering cannot be escaped from, as a conscience cannot be escaped from. A soldier grasps Jesus’ hair and holds the whip high, ready for the next lashing. All is intense movement in this picture, caught on the canvas in the spur of the moment.

Jesus reclines to the left. He does not stand upright as in al the paintings of previous Italian artistic periods and styles. Jesus is naked, showing a powerful muscular body. He is not the young idealised, even slightly androgynous, Renaissance youth anymore. The other figures of the paintings are also drawn in oblique directions, leaning to left or right. Caravaggio favoured diagonals. But balance and the vertical dimension had to be added to give the viewer a line of reference besides the frame. Therefore there is the column. The column of the Praetorium is in the title of the picture. It has become the one element of stability that we are familiar with. Here we find pure genius at work. Once stability and the line of reference were established, Caravaggio could represent the figures in swift movements and unusual angles. The picture seems easy and natural, but Caravaggio broke with all academics and styles with ‘The Flagellation of Christ at the Column’.

Caravaggio used a very direct realism in the picture. He might have wanted to represent Jesus entirely naked – as Jesus probably had been during the torture – but the painter had to stop just close of that. Jesus’ loincloth falls as low as could be decently presented and accepted by clergy. Even Caravaggio had to shy away from an entirely nude Jesus. The church hierarchy would certainly not have allowed him to go further in representation. The guards in the picture are rough soldiers of Caravaggio’s time. They can be guards or simple workmen of Rome or Naples. Jesus is among us, says the painter, Christ is flagellated by us here and now.

Caravaggio was an extremely skilled painter who can be compared to the best Florentines in the art of drawing. Look at Jesus’ muscular body. Look at the realism of the faces of the guards, the way their intense, energetic faces gleam out of the darkness of the inner room of the palace. The guards’ shirts and trousers are painted in all the crisp detail of Florence. The picture in this aspect very clear, limpid in its lines and in the way the areas are filled with colour.

Caravaggio’s composition of the ‘Flagellation of Christ’ is very dynamic. There is however a strong balance and stability in the view. The painter probably started with an idea to depict a Jesus in an unconventional oblique pose. Caravaggio divided the canvas vertically in two equal parts. As often in portraits, the vertical that divides the frame in two passes exactly through the eye of the central figure. Christ is entirely on one side of the halves; the middle line goes through his bound hands. The left part he divided again in two. The middle line of that part is one side of the column. Then he used the diagonal that goes from the lower left to the upper right. Here is the movement of the guard with the outstretched arm holding the lash. There are two other diagonals that are exploited. One is the diagonal in the left halve of the painting, a diagonal that goes from lower right to upper left. Jesus’ body follows this diagonal. The parallel diagonal of the right halve is followed by the guard tightening Jesus’ ropes. The heads of Jesus and of the guard with the lash are entirely above the long diagonal in the upper left part of the frame.

The gravity point of the two bodies of Jesus and of this guard is brought to the central theme of the picture, which is to the column. The mass of these areas created a void in the right lower part under the long diagonal. This void needed to be filled. Hence the guard on the lower right. This guard forms also a counterweight to the reclining Jesus. The head of the guard with the lash is in the middle of the distance between the column and the right soldier. We could go on with these considerations of geometry in the picture for there are still more, also horizontal symmetries, to be found.

When we thus analyse Caravaggio’s ‘Flagellation’, we find to our astonishment that this very natural and realistic image in which so much instantaneous energy of movement is expressed, in fact obeys very strong static lines of composition. This kind of strong geometrical structure would be found only in the strictest mathematical designs of Florentine pictures such as those made by Piero della Francesca. The composition, the way Caravaggio brings gravity of masses back to points of reference, lends the picture its stability despite the diagonals of movement. The resulting stability and rest allows the viewer to look at the painting indefinitely without feeling out of touch with familiar dimensions. This skill shows the incredible genius of Caravaggio. The painter imagined a natural, energetic scene within the constraints of strict mathematical form. The dynamism, the flash of the scene in the moment, necessitated strong balance in order for the viewer not to lose his points of reference.

‘The Flagellation of Christ at the Column’ was painted around 1606-1607, at a time when Caravaggio was in Naples. He had been banned from Rome. He might not have been too well off. He would have known, seen and lived in the small streets of popular Naples. He may have lived among tanners, carpenters, guards and thieves. It might have been the first time he found himself in a small dark room, alone with his conscience. He might have been suppressed by guilt or have been bitter over his fate of being banished from Rome due to an injustice. He certainly felt rejected, and an outcast. Some of this can be seen in Jesus’ face, but also much resignation, acceptance of fate and the state of desperateness a tortured man is in at the height of the pain that cannot be escaped from.

A painter like Caravaggio could only express his own feelings in a picture like this since every man knows only best and directly his own emotions. The particular moods Caravaggio was in at that period of his life have shown the suffering to an intense human emotion as no painter except some of the very greatest could represent. This picture is certainly the most powerful of all the paintings on themes of the New Testament, of all Christian art and particularly on Christ’s Passion. The very realism, the intense light in the darkness of the room has made of this picture a mystery of human suffering that transcends man. And this is all the story of the life of Jesus. Jesus has come to transcend man, to give him the hope that would drive European man for centuries. Europeans sought frantically to become more than human, more than the mere men and women of the earth. The hope for transcendence, the hope to be part of the Gods pushed Europeans ever further, internally in their art and outwardly towards conquests of land and matter. The transcendence started like a shaft of light in a dark palace room, in turmoil of movement. This is the mystique captured in Caravaggio’s picture.

With Caravaggio and this painting of the ‘Flagellation at the Column’ we are at a definite turnaround in art. Caravaggio was a natural genius. He was an intelligent man with a natural intuition for structure and movement. He had a very individual vision built on contrasts and powerfully mastered his religious themes. Caravaggio knew well the traditions of his profession but he created his own art and that art was entirely the result only of his own stubborn and powerful, independent character. For the first time the vision of an artist was blatantly forced upon commissioners. These recognised his genius and skill. The generations of painters after Caravaggio recognised the transition to the lone individuality of the artist and of his personal feelings about subjects of religion, even when this went entirely against all known tradition.

Piero della Francesca

Caravaggio’s ‘Flagellation’ contains astonishing strong geometries that are underlying in the movement of the figures and thus are not obvious in the scene. A picture in which the geometries are all too obvious is of course Piero della Francesca’s version of the ‘Flagellation’. This painting was made after 1459, an exact date is unknown; a probable date is around 1460 G56 . Piero worked much earlier than Caravaggio did. He was born in Borgo San Sepolchro in Tuscany around 1416 to 1420 and died there in 1492. Piero worked in Rome, Ferrara, Rimini and Urbino. He liked the study of mathematics and dedicated the last ten years of his life to perspective, geometry and mathematics as applied to art. His paintings are the joy of art analysts because strict geometries can always be found in the composition of his pictures. In his ‘Flagellation’ also, his love of architecture, of perspective and numeric ratios is very apparent.

Piero della Francesca’s painting of the ‘Flagellation of Christ’ is very enigmatic. The panel contains two parts. On the right part, three wealthy merchants or aristocrats are having a solemn conversation, oblivious of what happens on the left. The rich people are magnificently dressed. On the far right a merchant or nobleman wears a blue robe with rich golden embroideries. The man in the middle of this group is more soberly clad and does not seem to participate in the talk; he does not look at the other two persons of his group. Only one makes a gesture and then still that gesture with the left hand remains low. The persons are standing impassively; they remain inactive. This scene is shown in a very solemn way, in all the static of International Gothic art, with all the dignity of Florentine or Urbino aristocracy.

On the left of the panel Jesus is tortured. He is standing against a column and on each side two men hold their Roman military whips high. These persons are not dressed as soldiers however. They seem ordinary citizens of a Renaissance town. They wear no special armour, no iron coat of mail, but only the simple togas. If one of the soldiers were not wearing a leather helmet, one would not have thought of these men as being guards. The concept of Romans flogging Jesus is enhanced by the Roman statue on top of the column. Yet, the person seating on a throne-like chair to the left cannot be taken for Pilate. He looks like an eastern satrap, dressed in strange rose and blue colours. The man is sitting in front of the flagellation, but he remains just as static and impassive as the other personages of the picture. This could be Herod, allowed to sit in the Praetorium of Pilate’s palace to witness the torture or Pilate himself.

The Praetorium resembles a Renaissance palace with a row of columns and a richly decorated, flat ceiling. The Praetorium was a Roman construction. Yet here all the columns are of Corinthian style and so is the column against which Jesus is scourged. The Praetorium was the inner judgement hall of Pilate’s palace, indeed flanked by rows of columns. Hence as in most paintings of the Flagellation, Jesus is depicted bound to such a column. All the figures, both to the left and to the right stand impassively. Even Jesus is almost nonchalantly standing to his column. The Christ is being flogged, but this seems only a non-important moment in time, lost and forgotten in the splendour of the Renaissance palaces. The Praetorium was an inside hall, not opened at various sides to the air as in della Francesca’s picture. But opening the hall was necessary in order for us to be able to see the flagellation. This is as if the scene were a mind-image.

Perspective is applied rigorously in this painting, in the lines of the buildings to the left, in the lines of the hall, and especially in the black and white tiles of the floor. Here we perceive the interest of Piero della Francesca. The perspective is a tour de force and Piero has especially shown dramatically his skills in the checkerboard pattern of the floor. But also the foreshortening of perspective in the beams of the ceiling and of the lines of the buildings on the right prove the expert knowledge of this painter.

What does this picture mean? It is a picture of contrasts. Jesus is tortured but all, even Jesus himself, seem not to care. Faces remain expressionless. The image is so static, cold, without emotions, that it evokes in the viewer a feeling of disquiet, of strong unease. The act of the flagellation is negated, ignored, its horror diminished, the picture is bloodless, and devoid of emotions. The act of torture simply does not exist, even though it happens. Merchant and city life of Florence and Urbino ignores the passion of Christ.

The real meaning of the painting of Piero della Francesco remains a mystery as deep as late medieval artists could hide messages in symbols and images, following the ancient examples of the aphorisms and parables of Jesus himself. We have no records of Piero explaining the picture. The earliest hint given by scholars dates from the eighteenth century. Marco Bussagli has made a good study of the possible meanings proposed by scholars such as Kenneth Clark, Bertelli, Ginzburg and others G56 . According to one of the explanations the characters on the right could represent Federico de Montefeltro and his son Guidobaldo. The youngest man in the middle could be Federico’s stepbrother Oddantonio de Montefeltro. The most likely person is Oddantonio and if the two other figures do not compare well to other portraits of the Montefeltri, then the scene could represent Oddantonio and his bad councillors for Oddantonio died in a conspiracy in 1444.

According to other hypotheses, two of the figures could be the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Paleologus and his brother Thomas with the young Jesus. The man sitting on the throne watching the Flagellation could then be Sultan Mehmet II who took Constantinople in May of 1453 and who thus usurped the throne of the East-Roman emperors. Still other scholars saw in the first figure Giovanni Bacci, a member of the family that ordered to Piero della Francesca the frescoes of the ‘Legend of the True Cross’ in Arezzo. Bacci would be with Cardinal Bessarione, a friend of Federico de Montefeltro and with Buonconte de Montefeltro, an illegitimate child of the great Federico. The painting may allude to the crusades against the Turks since at least one of the flagellators seems to wear a turban, and there was a crusade against the Turks in 1443. Still another scholar saw in the painting references to the dream of Saint Jerome in which God reproached Jerome of preferring to read Cicero instead of the Holy Scriptures. The real purpose of the picture will stay allusive. Many more elements can be added to the discussion.

Piero della Francesca worked much with the number three. We find three figures and only three often in his pictures. In 1439 the Council of Cardinals that had begun in Ferrara in the Papal States moved to Florence. Piero could have seen John VIII Paleologus during his marvellous entry into Florence. The Council obtained the temporary unification of the churches of Rome and Constantinople. One of the most important points discussed during the Council was the Trinity. The Paleologi Emperors of Constantinople were desperately looking for support in the West against the Turks and proposed once again to finish the schism between the Western and Eastern churches.

The joining of the churches was a diplomatic card frequently played by the Emperors of Constantinople. The very first Paleologus Emperor already had drawn the card to foster alliances. The founder of the Paleologi dynasty was Michael VIII Paleologus. He was the Emperor of Nicaea and thus a Greek, but he had usurped that throne and he had conquered Constantinople from the Latin rulers, the descendants of the crusaders. Michael had already proposed the religious union in the years 1270 for he needed support against Charles d’Anjou who had strengthened his grip on Italy and who also wanted to make the old imperial city his and thus wear the title of Emperor. Michael sought support of the Pope of the moment. The Pope equally feared the power of Charles of Anjou, the brother of the King of France. In 1274 at the Council of Lyon the Pope had decreed the union. But the Greeks had not accepted, refuted the Paleologus Emperor, declaring the union invalid because not all Greek patriarchs had been present at the Council.

Later, as well John VIII Paleologus as his brother and successor Constantine came to Italy to recognise that the Holy Spirit was a product of both the Father and the Son. Greek Orthodoxism stated that the Spirit only emanated from the Father. But the Nicene Creed, the main Christian statement of faith, commonly called the ‘Credo’ in the Roman Catholic Church, stated ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son’. The words ’and from the Son’ are in Greek ‘Filioque’. This famous element, the ‘Filioque’, was one of the most important theological disputes that formed the schism between the Western and Eastern churches. Everybody agreed that the Holy Spirit was divine. But the Greek Church recited the Nicene Creed as stating that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. The Father was the only origin of the deity, of God. The Roman Catholic had inserted the ‘Filioque’, thereby saying that the Spirit proceeded from Father and Son. The Orthodox Christians of Constantinople felt that the ‘Filioque’ diminished the value of the Spirit. The Spirit was for them as much part of the deity as the Father and the Son. This was an ancient controversy between the Roman and Greek Churches, which may date from the ninth century. Both Churches had debated for over a thousand years on the exact nature of Father, Son and Spirit and now the position of the Spirit was the last and final dispute.

The other point of conflict was the Papal supremacy over the Christian Churches. Constantinople only accepted the equal authority of five patriarchs among whom the patriarchs from Rome and Constantinople were but two equals. The Byzantines considered in general that the true defender of faith was the whole Church, not just one Pope. But this point was not a theological one. It was merely a point of canonical law. The conference of Florence debated only nine days on the claims of the papal supremacy. The Filioque was debated for nine months however; the Filioque was the real dividing item of discussion.

The Emperors and their patriarchs pledged in Florence to Roman Catholic rites instead of to the Greek rituals hoping for the material help of the Popes in their wars with the Turks. The Union of Florence was never popular with the majority of the Greek Orthodox however and the idea collapsed with the Byzantine Empire.

Piero della Francesca was a youth at the times of the Council of Ferrara-Florence; he was in his later teens. The splendour of the courts of Emperor and cardinals may have very much impressed the young painter as well as the central talks on the Trinity dogma, even if Piero only fully understood its meaning later in life. The entry of the Paleologus Emperor in Florence must have been very splendid for also other painters recalled memories of the feasts and processions. Benozzo Gozzoli made the famous frescoes in the Medici Chapel on this theme as an ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

Piero della Francesca was also a mathematician. His treaty on perspective, ‘De Prospectiva Pingendi’ dating from 1482 was all about the art of perspective in painting. Piero must have worked for many years maturing his ideas and treaty on perspective and the ‘Flagellation’ contains complex perspective views. Perspective is about three points. Two points define a line segment and these two are connected to a point that represents the eye’s focal point. All perspective of areas derives from this concept of three linked points and perspective geometry contains thus only triangles in its construction. All lines of perspective converge together in one point, and that was a concept that could mystically refer to God as the focal point and creator of the universe. Triangles and the number three plus the mystery of the Trinity were much on Piero’s mind. The association of the triangle form with the Trinity was not new. John Gage wrote on that subject, ‘Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294) in his lengthy discussion of the crucial usefulness of physics and mathematics in the ‘Opus Maius’ had adducted the equilateral triangle as a perfect image of the Trinity precisely because it was a figure which could be found nowhere else in nature’ G97 . And also, ‘The association of the Trinity with the triangle was a Manichaean notion, condemned by Saint Augustine, hence was theologically suspect! It only became less so in early Renaissance, when the triangle appeared as the form of the halo of God.’ G97 .

Therefore Jesus at the column is being flagellated by three figures and he stands impassively caught in their triangle. When one looks at the marble tiles of the floor under Jesus, one sees that Jesus stands in the middle of a circle of black marble. The two soldiers that hold high their whip are one in front, the other almost at the same distance to us as Jesus, even though his arm is depicted behind Jesus. The third figure stands a little in front, not inside the circle. Since this man wears a turban we may here also have a hint to the Turks and to Sultan Mehmet, whereby the sitting figure could be the last Emperor of Constantinople, Constantine Paleologus. The scene could mean that Mehmet II could force Constantine to witness another paining of Jesus, the fall of the most important Christian city of the Orient. The figure sitting on the throne wears a pointed hat that is the same as the hat of Emperor Constantine in the ‘Battle between Constantine and Maxentius’ as painted in Piero’s cycle of the ‘True Cross’ in Arezzo. This kind of hat is the ‘Paleologi’ hat. Piero may have worked simultaneously at the scenes in Arezzo and at the ‘Flagellation’ or anyway have had the same figures in his head at that time. But Piero re-used often faces and elements throughout his pictures so this detail also is no conclusive proof.

The three figures on the right could also symbolically represent the Trinity. The middle figure alone is barefoot and wears the traditional simple red robe of Jesus. A wise bearded figure could represent the Holy Spirit and the third figure the Father. This scene could again be Emperor Constantine on the left and sultan Mehmet on the right. Indeed, the robe of the right figure flows downwards as if the person holds a curved sword. The left figure has a forked and pointed beard as also Emperor Constantine has in the episode ‘Constantine’s Dream’ in the Arezzo cycle of the ‘True Cross’. Emperor Constantine of ‘Constantine defeats Maxentius’ and the sitting figure of the ‘Flagellation’ likewise have these pointed black beards. Piero may have seen Constantine in Florence or at least his brother Thomas and remembered their face.

Maybe Piero only wanted to express his mystic belief in the Trinity and the number three, as he arrived at a double representation of that symbolic number of Christianity and filled in allusions to characters and situations in the medieval way.

The ‘Flagellation of Christ’ is also an example of scenes ordered according to Golden Mean divisions. The picture consists of two scenes. The lengths of the two scenes of the painting are in the proportion of the Golden Mean. The left scene then contains again two parts, horizontally and vertically. In the left scene stands the column against which Christ is being flagellated and this column divides the left scene in two sub-scenes, the lengths of which are in the Golden Mean. The left scene is horizontally divided in two parts. One part contains the scene with the figures, the other the ceiling. Furthermore, the right scene of the painting holds three figures and the right scene holds five figures, which are Fibonacci numbers. The Fibonacci series and the Golden Mean hold the same proportions and both were considered in the late Middle Ages as divine proportions. So Piero della Francesca obviously brought into his painting not only mysterious references to the Trinity but also mystic proportions.

The golden statue on top of the column against which stands Jesus holds a white ball in its outstretched hand. The statues could as well represent the old Roman deities as refer to the emperors of Constantinople. Piero might have used this symbol to point to the old gods that Jesus has come to replace, and to their temporary victory over Jesus tortured at the column. If the statue refers to the East-Roman emperors, Piero could have suggested that the East-Roman Emperors, who were Christians, were tortured by the Turks, impersonified by Mehmet II watching from near the throne. Constantine Paleologus fought for his city and died with a sword in his hands. He was decapitated and his head put on display on a column. The three bystanders of the right then could be the powerful Italian rulers who did not intervene but literally turned their backs to the fall of Constantinople, the most splendid Christian court of the world.

Piero della Francesca and Benozzo Gozzoli may have witnessed the visit of John and Thomas Paleologus to Florence, maybe even the visit of Constantine. The Turkish sultans stood then and since long before the doors of Constantinople. The East- Roman Emperors had gradually lost all their territories to the Ottoman Turks, not just their Asian lands but also the European parts as well as the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece. The Turks fought as north as Hungary and the Albanians in the West. As a response to the Paleologi pleads in the West a crusader army had started in the 1440s, but the Turks at the battle of Varna annihilated this army in 1444. When John VIII Paleologus died childless in 1448 his three brothers could claim the throne but Constantine was the oldest. He became Emperor in 1449 with the support of the Turkish Sultan Murad, the father of Mehmet II.

When Mehmet drew his armies against Constantinople he was merely twenty-two years old. Constantine XI Paleologus had sought help. He too had been to Florence with his brother Thomas and he had sent ambassadors to King Charles VII of France. The Pope had assembled a Genoese and Venetian fleet but this army, if it could have turned fate, arrived too late. Mehmet prepared his attack during the year 1452 and made his final assaults in 1453. The East-Roman Empire then had been reduced to the mere city walls of Constantinople. Constantine had vowed to unite the Roman and the Greek churches and in Saint Sophia, then the largest cathedral of the Christian world, Latin liturgy was performed again. In 1452 Constantine and the legate of the Pope, Archbishop Isidore of Kiev, held together with the patriarchs a formal Latin Mass in the Saint Sophia and accepted officially the Filioque. But the city was weakened because of the theological disputes, which did not end after the Latin Mass. The leader of the Greek religious party was one George Scholarius, also called Gennadios and although this monk had earlier worked in Florence for the unification of the faiths, he now openly fought the Emperor’s reforms inside the city and while the Turks prepared to attack. Few Greeks stood to defend the city.

The fall of Constantinople is hulled in romantic heroism. The defenders had little hope of holding out to the masses of Turk soldiers amassed before their gates. Yet they stood on the walls together as a choice of the warriors of Christ abandoned to their fate by the Western Europe from where they originated. Inside the city stood thus a small number of soldiers of various nationalities, because Constantinople was the most important trading centre with the East. All had in common their Christian faith and of course the trading interests of their homelands.

The Genoese captain Giovanni Giustiniani Longo had arrived just before the siege with 700 soldiers and he was made the leading general of Constantine. The Emperor himself defended the gate of Saint Romanus. Don Francesco di Toledo helped him. The brothers Paul and Anthony Troilus Bochiardi defended the Adrianopolis gate. Theodorus of Karystos held the Egrikapu gate. The German Johannes Grant commanded the artillery. Slavs, Serbs and Bulgarians were led by Cardinal Isidore who was Archbishop of Kiev, who had also been in Florence and who had held theological conferences with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Isidore had led the Russian delegation at the Council of Florence; the Roman Pope had appointed him a cardinal and an apostolic legate. In Moscow however, Prince Basil II rejected the agreements of Florence and had Isidore arrested and imprisoned. Isidore escaped abroad, to Constantinople, but Muscovy had refused the Union. The Venetians Hieronymus Mainotto, the brothers Hieronymus and Leonardo de Langosto defended other parts of the town. The Venetian Gabriele Trevisano kept the gate at the port; the Venetian Contarino stood at the Golden Gate. The Genoese Maurizio Cataneo fought at the Selymbria gate. The Spanish Consul Pedro Giuliani helped with his Catalans there too. Admiral Lucas Notaras defended the port.

The final attack started on April 2 of 1453 and lasted about eight weeks. Then the Turks could enter the city and slaughtered the defenders. Mehmet let his soldiers pillage for three days. Then he entered the city himself. Sultan Mehmet would now take the citadel of Constantinople as his headquarters and Saint Sophia became a mosque.

The fall of the last rampart of Christianity in the Near Orient made an enormous effect on the states of Western Europe. New crusades were preached in Germany and France until several years later but not organised. The Genoans and Venetians were blamed for having sold Constantinople and having let Mehmet’s army draw its ships over land to the other side of the fabulous chain that had protected the entry to the harbour. Genoans and Venetians continued their trade out of the Galata district of Istanbul, as the city would henceforth be named. At best the storming Turks could be halted for a while with western help in Hungary, but in Albania Skanderberg had to fight without western troops and after his death also this land passed under Turk control. Demetrios was accepted at the Sultan’s court. Thomas Paleologus could flee to their Peloponnese possessions but soon also Mehmet took this land. Thomas fled then to Italy, to Rome.

The fall of Constantinople created an even greater problem for Greek Orthodoxy for the unity of church and empire, which had been extremely strong over the previous centuries, and which had determined the culture of the region was destroyed. Furthermore, the moral and leading authority of the Church was now in the power of Muslims and the patriarch of Greek Orthodoxism received its investiture from the Turkish sultan G60 . The Patriarchs of Constantinople remained in the city till our own days. Sultan Mehmet protected the Patriarchs. But no new churches could be built and outward signs of Christendom were to be reduced to a minimum.

Piero della Francesca may have had the number three and the Trinity constantly on his mind. He may have made a scene with various combinations of possible meanings. Piero could only have given the real answer himself and he might have acquiesced to several explanations given by others, as all indeed are equally possible. We do not possess a writing of his hand to that effect. Each viewer may find another truth in the mystery of Piero’s painting. The images generate their own meaning. Piero’s picture remains one of the most fascinating works of art that keep scholars in its spell.

The strong vertical lines, the rational mathematics of this picture, the coldness of the white marble and the detachment of the painter for his subject evoke loneliness and timeliness. Piero seemed to want to convey the message that Italian society of the fifteenth century was impervious to suffering. Suffering was ignored. Suffering was forgotten in the splendour of the Renaissance courts. Backs were turned to human pain. Our society is cold, said Piero della Francesca. At the same time he compared the disasters of the court of Urbino and of the fall of Constantinople to the torture of Christ. Horrors happened in Italy; Jesus was flagellated all the time by the cruelty of dictators who illegally usurped power in the city-states. Courtiers played at intrigues; they worked at doom scenarios that might bring fame and fortune but in the meanwhile people suffered or would suffer as a result. The wealthy states turned their backs on one of the major defeats of the Christian civilisation. The very coldness of the painting makes us think and reflect on the true values of life. The message of this ‘Flagellation’ thus is a very moral one. Piero has applied all his geometries and rational skills to point us directly on human emotions even though he seems to deny these emotions in his painting.

The ‘Flagellation’ of Caravaggio and the ‘Flagellation’ of Piero della Francesca are two very different paintings.

Caravaggio painted a scene of violent movement discovered in a flash of light. He showed human figures linked in sweat, torture and suffering. He showed all the tactile emotions of pain in a dark hall. Piero della Francesca painted an intellectual scene in full bright light. He pictured a very static scene caught in the intricate pattern of strict geometry. Caravaggio plunged us into the horror; Piero was seemingly detached from suffering. Caravaggio appeals to our senses, Piero della Francesca to our mind. Piero puts on a wrong foot so that we are intrigued by his painting, start to reflect, try to understand and then discover his message which finally is the same as Caravaggio’s: Jesus is tortured every day somewhere among us.

Other paintings:

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