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Christ stares calmly out at us from the heart of this picture, his serenity a vivid contrast to the brutality of his tormentors. At the back are two soldiers, one about to force the crown of thorns onto Christ’s head. In front two men kneel in mock homage; one seems about to tear off Christ’s robe.
This is the only painting of Christ mocked now known that can be attributed to Bosch, and its upright format is highly unusual. It can't have been easy to imagine and Bosch clearly expended an enormous amount of effort on designing the picture, which is carefully structured through shape and colour. He toned down the violence of the scene: in the underdrawing (the preliminary outlining of the composition), the four men treat Christ with greater brutality. The changes make the picture more interesting and ambiguous: the men’s expressions are open to different interpretations.
Christ stares calmly out at us from the heart of this picture, his serenity a vivid contrast to the brutality of the men around him. This painting combines two episodes from Christ’s Passion: the mocking and the crowning with thorns. Bosch drew on all four Gospel accounts of Christ’s humiliation and contemporary devotional literature which tell how he was first insulted and spat at in the houses of the Jewish priests. Next, after his trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he was dressed in rich clothes by Roman soldiers, who plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They mocked him, saying ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’, and spat on and struck him. Finally they removed the cloak and led him away to be crucified.
Bosch has compressed different phases of the action into a single picture. The men at the back, who wear pieces of armour, seem to be soldiers: one grasps a stick while the other, in green, holds up the crown, his hand protected by a mail glove. The two men in front kneel in mock homage; one seems about to tear off Christ’s robe.
This is the only painting of Christ mocked now known that can be attributed to Bosch, and its upright format is highly unusual. It can‘t have been easy to imagine a half-length version of this scene, and it may have been inspired by the half-length narrative compositions of Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes. Bosch clearly expended an enormous amount of effort on designing the picture – it’s carefully structured through shape and colour.
Christ seems smallest, but the figures are all on the same scale and are layered into three planes: the men at the top are furthest away, with Christ in front of them and the two at the bottom in the foreground. All four gaze inwards at Christ, focusing our attention on him. The hands are intriguing, with seven forming an almost vertical line down the middle of the picture, while Christ’s right eye is on the central vertical axis, helping to give his head dominance. The composition’s geometry gives it stability: Christ’s body forms an inner triangle, while a larger one is made up of the iron gauntlet and the angle of his head and left shoulder; the diagonal of the arrow parallels the iron gauntlet. The slant of stave held by the soldier echoes the fall of Christ’s robe across his body, while the red sleeves and hands of the man on the lower right parallel the second stave. Colours add both balance and meaning. The strong green of the man in the top left is echoed in the oak leaves in the top right, and complemented by the pinks and reds that dominate the lower part of the picture. The paleness of Christ’s robe – it has always been white, no traces of faded red pigments have been found – sets him apart from his colourful enemies and emphasises his vulnerability.
Although the tormentors wear Renaissance dress, their clothes would have seemed old fashioned or exotic around 1510, when this picture was painted, possibly to stress their difference from the painting’s intended audience. The star and crescent on the red hood of the man in the lower left corner perhaps connects him with the Eastern Mediterranean. The oak leaves in the hat of the man in the top right are enigmatic but may have been associated with pagan rituals; they were perhaps a late addition, as they are painted over the top of the hat and the man’s forehead. Other objects were perhaps symbolic. One soldier has an arrow in his headdress, of a kind designed for hunting: its chisel-shaped tip would have hamstrung the hunted animal, allowing the hounds to catch it. The other wears a spiked collar, suggesting not only his savagery but also the widespread late medieval characterisation of Christ’s tormentors as dogs, based on Psalm 21: 17: ’For many dogs have encompassed me.‘ Christ is clearly to be disabled and mauled before being killed.
The four men crowding in on the pale figure of Christ create a claustrophobic atmosphere, fraught with threat – but Bosch actually toned down the violence of the scene. Technical analysis shows that in the underdrawing the bearded man on the lower left was pointing to his mouth, probably to show he had been spitting or shouting at Christ. The hands of the man on the lower right originally clutched at the edge of Christ’s mantle as if to tear it off. The man in the top right corner had sharp spikes in his staff and grasped Christ’s shoulder with his hand. The hand as it is now was painted on top of the paint layer beneath: you can see the line of Christ’s shoulder running through the fingers. The changes make the picture both more interesting and ambiguous. The tormentors’ expressions are open to varying interpretations: cruel or compassionate, sinister or anxious. The crown of thorns makes the shape of a halo, as well as being an instrument of torture.
The painting is basically in good condition, although some of the colours have changed: red lake glazes have faded and some of the copper green glazes are turning brown. In places the paint is very thin, so that the underdrawing and pentimenti can clearly be seen, especially in lighter areas such as Christ’s robe. Bosch handled the paint with extraordinary skill. In many places, for example in the armour and the hat of the man in the top right corner, it is worked wet-in-wet and then dragged or feathered with dry brushes. Bosch’s amazing skills as a painter, designer and colourist are well demonstrated in this picture, which is obviously by the same artist as the famous Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Curiously, underneath this image of Christ is an unfinished painting of Saint Christopher carrying the Christ Child on his shoulder, which – although rather different in style and technique – is probably also by Bosch.
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