BEHIND THE ‘SEEN’: ‘Entry of Christ into Jerusalem’ by Anthony Van Dyck is our Art reflection for Palm Sunday.
Another painter reconciled to the pages of art history is Anthony Van Dyck. He was born in 1599 in Antwerp to a flourishing family of a silk merchant. A child prodigy, at the age of 16 he had already set up his own art studio. Next he was the master in the Guild of St. Luke at Antwerp. Hailed for his dexterity in portrait painting, he soon went places. In 1620, he visited London, next Genoa and Venice painting imposing portraits of the wealthy. He was also a court artist to Archduchess Isabella, Frederick Henry, Dutch Prince of Orange and Charles I, King of England.
Van Dyck portraits were also flattery at times. This is best expressed by Electoress Sophia of Hanover when she first met Queen Henrietta Maria of England. She wrote, ‘Van Dyck’s handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth.’
One of the greatest portrait artists of all times, it is unfortunate that today Van Dyck is regarded almost exclusively in this capacity. Like Peter Paul Reuben, his mentor, Van Dyck was also a painter of the Counter Reformation. As a counter to the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent exercised great influence upon art and perceived it as an important vehicle to instruct, delight, move and inspire faith. The consequence was the emanation of the Baroque era of art (1585 – 1730).
The painting, ‘Entry of Christ into Jerusalem’ was executed in oil on canvas by Van Dyck in 1617. The peculiarity here is that everything is brought to the foreground while the background seems irrelevant. This is to involve the viewer directly with the subject. The two raised hand on either side of the painting; the figures seated on the trees and the expressions of the masses signify that Jesus is being mobbed by throngs of people. As the Gospels state, they cried ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ In profile, in front of Jesus is a man laying down his cloak symbolizing reverence and surrender. Behind Jesus are his apostles in anticipated discussion of the great things that are perhaps in store for them. But our focus is caught by three principal figures placed in a diagonal.
The first figure is Peter who points towards Jerusalem, his concerned gaze towards Jesus. This is reminiscent of the Gospel where Peter impetuously tries to stop Jesus from his passion. Jesus response as seen by his raised hand is clear. ‘Get behind me Satan!’ he says. Jesus in profile sits side saddled on the colt which symbolizes poverty and humility. Though hailed as a King, Jesus chooses a donkey and not a white horse. By this he emphasizes ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ in action. His firm grip of the bridle signifies that in every circumstance, God is in control.
But Van Dyck is not satisfied with just pictorially describing the moment. He wants to give us the complete story. And he does that through symbols. So while Christ is triumphantly entering Jerusalem, his passion and death lurks round the corner. Quite literally as seen by the bare shouldered, stooped, crouching muscular figure. His face is towards Jesus.
He sings not hosanna but a song of passion. He carries not a palm frond but a branch of poppy or oak. While poppy symbolizes death, the oak symbolizes endurance. However what is indeed striking is the placement of his vein protruding feet in accordance to that of the donkey signifying that ‘death’ is treading along. Take a closer look and you will notice that his left foot has six toes. Six symbolizes imperfection or humanity in Christian art. Thus through human temporal death Jesus grants eternal life.
Van Dyck’s style is as beautiful as his narrative. The Flemish Baroque energy is enlivened in this scene through the brilliant colour palette, muscularity of the figures, emotional intensity; dynamism and a sense of the viewer’s involvement. He uses techniques like light and shadow effect, fluid brush texture, foreshortening and lack of clear cut lines to make it seem rapturous. Everything is in motion, everything seems alive. This then uplifts the human spirit and energizes the believer to engage in a triumph that even death could not conquer!
Assistant Direct, Archdiocesan Heritage Museum
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