Lent Reflection: Hieronymus Bosch

By David Morson

I was looking at one of my Art Books today and was struck by a painting by the Flemish Artist Hieronymus Bosch of Christ Carrying His Cross, painted sometime between 1500 – 1535. What is unusual about this painting is that it is a claustrophobic sea of faces only, with no full length figures, depicting the jostling mass crowd surrounding Christ on His way to Calvary. I counted 18 faces occupying the whole canvas. This is a most unusual treatment of this subject by artists and made me wonder why.

14 faces had been distorted by Bosch to convey grotesque ugliness, cruelty and arrogance, expressing their belief that they were in total control of proceedings. Yet, in the middle of these faces, in the centre of the painting, almost submerged by such cruelty and mockery is the calm and tranquil countenance of Christ

Bosch was a keen observer of human nature and the message I think he wanted to convey was that on a human level it was jealousy, cruelty. betrayal and injustice which led to Christ’s condemnation. The disciples abandoned Him, Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, the High Priest brought false charges against Him, Pilate condemned Him out of cowardice and fear, the soldiers used violence and mockery It seems that Bosch wanted to vividly depict and reflect these unseemly and negative features of our human condition in the faces of the crowd leading Christ to His death.
Unlike Christ, who seems serenely immune to what is going on around Him, one of the thieves is aggressively arguing with his tormentors, whilst the other thief’s face is full of fear at the baying countenances around Him.

Two women in the bottom left corner, one of whom is Veronica, holds the cloth she used to wipe the face of Jesus which left the imprint of His Face on the cloth, images now known as “Veronicas” in the Church.

Here I think lies the key to the painting. All the other heads depicted are profiles, but on the cloth, the face of Christ looks out of the painting directly t to us the spectators. He challenges us to position ourselves in the context of what is happening, to reject actions that degrade our humanity, expressed in the countenances of the majority and to join with Him in a focused, single minded path, patiently treading our way in this Lent journey towards a state of union with His Father which is our goal and destiny.

You can Goole this painting with “Hieronymus Bosch Christ Carrying His Cross” if you would like to see it.