Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Before Jesus was taken to be crucified he was subjected to humiliating mockery by the soldiers of Pilate’s palace. In the Gospel according to Matthew it states that ‘…they plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head … and they kneeled down before him and mocked him, saying, Hail King of the Jews’.
In this painting Bosch has chosen to surround Christ with only four tormentors, each exhibiting his own special form of menace. He is the calm centre of the hatred swirling around him. His eyes hold us and then seem to penetrate us; they might be transmitting a gentle rebuke across the centuries. His four persecutors represent an evil and sinful world of which we are all part. The crown of thorns doubles as a halo but we know that very soon indeed the mailed fist will jam it mercilessly onto Christ’s head provoking blood to flow.
In common with many of the artist’s works, it is difficult to establish a clear iconography for this painting. It has been suggested that the four men surrounding Christ represent the four humours (or temperaments), with the two lower faces supposedly displaying sanguine and choleric characteristics, the two others revealing themselves as phlegmatic and melancholy. Or it might be that they are in some way diabolical mirror images of the four evangelists.
The curious red headdress of the man below and to the left of Christ sports an Islamic crescent, stigmatising him as a non-Christian. The two upper tormentors are military men as evinced by the elements of armour they wear. The crossbow bolt piercing the hat of the man in green is used (together with other variant implements such as knives) in other works by Bosch, but its exact meaning remains opaque. His opposite number wears a heavily spiked dog collar encircling his throat emphasising the bestial nature of the wearer.
A sprig of oak leaves with an acorn is attached to this man’s hat (he is possibly a retainer wearing the leaves as a badge of loyalty). The wonderful facility with which this tromp l’oeil passage is painted makes these leaves one of the most extraordinary vignettes to be found in the National Gallery. The viewer sees that the cutting is a number of days old because the extremities of the leaves have begun to dry out and curl. And astonishingly, as the leaves curl away from the hat they seem to pierce the picture plane and invade our reality eliciting a momentary uncertainty as to whether it could be that someone has attached them to the painting.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
1491 Carlo Crivelli: The Virgin and Child with Saints Francis and Sebastian, London, National Gallery
1495 Pietro Perugino: St Sebastian, Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum
1498 Leonardo da Vinci: Last Supper, Milan, Sta Maria delle Grazie