Velazquez's Jesus Is Scourged, Yet Serene: The Spanish Artist Depicts the Soul Contemplating Christ
Beckett, Wendy, National Catholic Reporter
Art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett is writing NCR's Lenten series. Each week during Lent, she discusses a work of art as it illustrates the life of Jesus.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT: "Christ after the Flagellation," by Diego Velazquez, c. 1629.
As one holding an elevated position at the Spanish court, painter to the king Diego Velazquez mostly occupied himself with royal portraits. He might not have felt too constricted. Velazquez was the most reticent of artists, portraits were agreeably impersonal and he must have known that he painted them superbly. This means that there are very few religious works from his hand, which is a lasting deprivation to us, as we can see from the power of his "Christ after the Flagellation." One cannot see it without being moved: Surely only a man deeply responsive to the person of Jesus could have painted it. We are moved when we see it, but we may not fully understand it. (Art can affect us at a level deeper than the intellectual.)
On the left, it is clear enough. Jesus has slumped to the earth, bleeding and in pain, kept relatively upright only by the ropes that still tie him to the pillar. The contempt of his scourgers and the wounds of the lash have left him undefeated. The look he gives us is infinitely sorrowful but serene: sorrowful because this is the Son of God they are rejecting, the Word who is light and love, yet serene because "they know not what they do." There is no condemnation in Jesus, whatever our sins. On the right is a robust guardian angel, that symbolic stand-in for God the Father, sober but attentive. But who is between them? We would think it a child, but iconography tells us that the soul is often pictured as something young and innocent. The full Spanish title makes it clear: "Christ after the Flagellation Contemplated by the Christian Soul."
Jesus has no halo, though a faint nimbus of light surrounds his head. But he sends out a narrow shaft of light toward the soul, indicative of the grace, energizing and sanctifying, that his sacrifice offers us. …