PICTURING THE PASSION: ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ by Hieronymus Bosch (1515 – 1516)
‘The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls’ – Edgar Allan Poe
Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter, was born in the mid 1400’s in Southern Netherlands. As a man of his times he attributed all human behaviour to either good or evil, to God or the Devil. In his paintings he often captured the monsters within man and presented them with flashing fantasy. A fantasy so real, that it provoked the viewer’s heart to an intimate awareness of one’s scandalized self. Bosch painted man as he appeared from the inside and not merely by face – value.
One of his most celebrated paintings is that of ‘Christ carrying the Cross’. Bosch executed it a year before his death. A deeply contemplative image, through this painting Bosch invites us to journey inwards, to shake our rigid hearts and to identify ourselves with Christ and His passion.
At once we confront a landscape of faces. According to the science of Physiognomy, the face is said to be the window to the soul. A beautiful face meant a pure soul while an ugly visage was equated with sin and deviance. A hooked nose meant deceit and lust; an acute jaw indicated brutality while thick lips spelled mental abnormality. Profuse accessories and exaggerated gestures was an immediate indication to a bad character.
As we glance through the painting, we notice at the center lies the peaceful face of Jesus. He is lost in a tangle of scowling, grinning, leering, grotesque caricatured heads. Each possesses a bizarre personality and emotion. As we analyse the painting, lets journey through this creation of cruelty and cynicism.
We begin from the bottom – left. As beams of un-realistic and artificial light floods in, it illuminates the image of a fair, young maiden. Subtly smiling to herself, she holds in her hand a veil on which is imprinted the visage of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. She represents the legendary apocryphal figure of St. Veronica who bravely offered to wipe Christ brow on His way to Calvary. Her reward was ‘veronica’ or ‘vera icon’, the ‘true picture’ of the Saviours face on her veil.
Next to Veronica at the bottom right corner of the painting is a throng of grinning figures. Nightmarish, the trio seems to corner and mock at the snarling snaggle-toothed man. He symbolizes the impenitent thief. Their unkempt, greasy and dark complexion reveals their sinister traits.
The penitent thief is depicted at the top right end. He rolls his eyes at the tonsured monk who seems to advocate advice to the captive. The friar appears as a hideous person of self-importance. His companion is the Pharisee who silently partakes in the pontificates by poking his sharp – hooked nose. The air stinks of hypocrisy.
Below them are featured the next gruesome threesome. The first is the round headed Roman soldier. Clothed in armour, he aggressively leads the procession towards Calvary. His bloated face proclaims his greed and gluttony.
Right behind him stands the most mysterious figure. Sporting a conical wizard like hat, he seems to have just popped out of the Harry Potter series. With his eyes closed, he wears a wicked smile. Perhaps he is casting a sinful spell that would contribute to the fall of man. Besides his enchanted hat we encounter yet another beastly character. His howls pierce the cacophony of the crowd.
In the midst of this murky mayhem, is the solemn face of Jesus silently carrying His cross. He seems unperturbed by the madness of the ugly carnal world. He is beyond the mob, withdrawn to a higher sphere. Interestingly, the calmness of Christ is reflected on no other figure except Veronica. Christ with his closed eyes is placed on a diagonal with her veil. The image on the veil is the only face in the painting that gazes directly at us, almost urging us to choose between good and evil.
On that day as Veronica dodged her way to Christ in the maelstrom of malice, she received not just the shadow of peace but the Prince of Peace Himself and through Him she gained everlasting life!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557
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