Hieronymus Bosch – Christ Mocked (The Crowning of Thorns)

Continuing our occasional series featuring some of the finest pictures in London’s National Gallery, Gaw looks at a crucifixion scene that’s unusually troubling even for this genre…

The current work-in-progress of Mark Alexander, a painter and friend of The Dabbler, is inspired by Christ Mocked (The Crowning by Thorns) by Hieronymus Bosch. He urged me to have a good look at it as he found it had an uncomfortable power. I took his advice and since then I haven’t been able to stop returning to it: it left me feeling uneasy, and puzzled.

Certainly there are some straightforward reasons for this to be an unsettling painting. There’s the portraits of the four mockers, each a disturbing psychological study in variously sadism, pomposity, malice, cynicism, complacency. Together they give an impression of misplaced propriety. They’re what the Viennese call Respektpersonen; men who expect a little deference as their due, communal pillars, even perhaps dignitaries.

Then there’s the gaze of Christ. At first this seems straightforwardly gentle, resigned and compassionate. But there’s something about its fixity, its steadiness as well as the set of the mouth that suggests something more complex: it’s quizzical, perhaps even sardonic.

Combine all of this and one is left squirming. That gaze has put you on the spot. Why are we being quizzed? Is that fleetingly sardonic look actually mocking us?

Despite the ambiguities and subtleties of the psychologies on display here, I, for one, can’t avoid the conclusion that we’re being presented with a challenge, and quite a blunt one: so, what are you going to do about this then, this crime? Nothing? Scared of these men, their authority, are you? But what sort of authority is it that does this? …I think the appropriate phrase is passive aggressive.

But no less aggressive for that. Christ here is clearly the lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins. But Bosch’s skill also has him also portraying another promise:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Matthew 10:34 

The painting is divisive, in fact it demands division: us, the viewers, against them, the mockers. And isn’t it quite a welcome division for the rebel-at-heart? Look at them: they’re the officious bureaucrats, place-holders, brown-nosers, expense cheats, paper-shufflers, vindictive bullies, preening hypocrites, slippery connivers that we all know and resent.

All this done through that gaze.

Bosch painted Christ Mocked some time between 1490 and 1500, just before the dawn of a century and a half of religious conflict. I wonder if it contains both prophecy and provocation.

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8 thoughts on “Hieronymus Bosch – Christ Mocked (The Crowning of Thorns)

  1. law@mhbref.com'
    jonathan law
    January 24, 2012 at 12:04

    Something quite literally in-your-face about this picture. These guys are up for invading your personal space, and that goes for JC as much as his tormentors.

    As always with Bosch, the details are puzzling and would probably be a good deal less intriguing if we knew what they meant. For example, the oak leaves in Top Right’s hat are presumably some sort of familial or regional identifier but seem much more mysterious and satisfying as just, well, oak leaves. Likewise the arrow, if that’s what it is, in Top Left’s headgear. From our perspective, isn’t there something all a bit sci-fi or sci-fi-fantasy about the costumes and accoutrements? That mailed hand with the crown of thorns — it’s the hand of a cyborg.

  2. Gaw
    January 24, 2012 at 12:16

    I guessed the oak leaves were some sort of pagan reference.

  3. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    January 24, 2012 at 12:20

    Great post Gaw, and it is indeed a very odd and unsettling picture, not least for its strange affectlessness – and that vapid Jesus, who looks like no other in art. He doesn’t even appear to be suffering, just mildly embarrassed by the whole thing. I suspect, as with so many Bosches, there are mysteries here that will never be penetrated – his paintings often seem to be expressions of some very personal and heterodox belief system, which we’re unlikely ever to recover. Meanwhile, I’d have Titian’s impassioned Christ Crowned with Thorns any day…

  4. Gaw
    January 24, 2012 at 12:46

    The Bosch vs the Titian – the difference between North and South doesn’t come much starker than that! And I’m afraid it’s Flemish reticence for me…

  5. Brit
    January 24, 2012 at 13:32

    I’m with the Bosch too – I prefer unsettlingly blank to impassioned. Top Right is extremely unnerving.

    Fine analysis Gaw – I’ve overlooked this one despite my many keen ventures into the National, which indicates that gallery’s bottomless riches.

  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    January 24, 2012 at 14:54

    It was said of Bosch that he “belched out the middle ages” and it’s true, possibly the original surrealist and must hold the record for the largest number of pictures wrongly attributed to an artist. Eyes figure quite often in his work considering how much of it is hellfire and damnation with more body parts than a Baghdad recruitment queue (the other ‘Thorns’ in Madrids El Escorial has unsettling eyeballing.) nice reading Gaw, move over AG-D.

  7. Gaw
    January 24, 2012 at 15:46

    Cheers Malty. Those two ‘Thorns’ certainly don’t look as if they were painted by the same artist, do they?

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