Bosch's 'Christ Carrying the Cross.' (Painting by Hieronymus Bosch)

Article excerpt

Gordon Marsden looks at how a Passion portrayal by one of the Middle Ages' most enigmatic painters, unlocks the door to the intense world of late medieval religious devotion.

Of all the religious art that survives from Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, that dealing with the events of the Passion of Christ is among the most powerful and pervasive. Whether set out in the high art commissioned for great rulers, rich bourgeois, church dignitaries or institutions, or in the low art of cheap woodcut sheets or illustrating devotional books now widely available to the layman via the new medium of printing, the final stages of Christ's life, from the triumphal Jerusalem entry on Palm Sunday, through to the agonies and trauma of the garden of Gethsemane and the killing-field of Golgotha, were rendered with a power and obsession previously unattained in a thousand years of Christian art.

This development was not an isolated aesthetic fashion. It sprang from crucial changes in theology, doctrine and religious devotion, both private and public. As artists representing the Passion had a common body of symbols, gestures and images with which to work, there was no need -- and little inclination, in a world where Gregory the Great had declared that religious painting was the bible of the unlettered, and the concept of `art for art's sake', yoked to a function either religious or secular, was unknown -- for an artist to branch out and produce his own private iconography (such as Picasso was to do in the twentieth century with `Guernica').

So when we come to look at the Passion paintings of Hieronymus Bosch we should take on board this `health warning' and avoid the wilder theories of psychological disorder or hallucinogen-induced creativity. Bosch is not Van Gogh avant la lettre -- a tortured individualist trying to find relief and expression in his own creative idiosyncrasies. What documentary details we have of Bosch's life -- and they are scanty -- place him firmly in the orthodoxies of society and belief in the Northern Europe of the late Middle Ages.

His genius though -- and it is never more sharply exposed than in his painting of `Christ Carrying The Cross' that today hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent -- lies in the way he takes the late medieval perspectives of the Passion and stretches them to aesthetic screaming point. And if we have the keys to unlock his iconographical doors, all the turbulent and intense belief of that world tumbles out through his painting.

`De Kruisdraging'-- the 74 x 81 cm Ghent depiction of Christ on his way to crucifixion after condemnation before Pilate -- is one of at least three surviving versions of this scene that can be attributed firmly to Bosch. It is probably the last of them, painted in the later stages of his life before his death in 1516 -- just a year before Martin Luther was to turn Christendom upside down with the ninety-five theses that were to spark off the Reformation. The painting incorporates the basic elements common to earlier representations, by both Bosch and other artists, of Christ carrying the cross -- the condemned Saviour on his way to a shameful death surrounded by officials and bystanders. But it is a composition foreshortened and intensified to maximum emotional effect.

At the centre of the painting, with the great beam of the cross forming a compositional diagonal from top left to bottom right, is Jesus himself; not prostrate as in some versions of the scene but clearly afflicted by the burden, physical and mental, of the instrument of execution which Simon of Cyrene, press-ganged by the authorities to help carry the cross, struggles to grip (with hands more like paws) at the top right of the painting.

There are other figures in the painting who are individuals identifiable, like Simon, from the Gospel narratives. At bottom right is the `bad thief' who rails against Christ during their joint crucifixion at Calvary. …