Matthew 27:27–31; Mark 15:16–20; John 19:1–3
The Crowning and Robing
Commentary by Jill M. Pederson
Anthony Van Dyck (1599–1641) vividly illustrates the cruelty during the crowning and robing in the common hall, as it is described in Matthew 27:27–31. In this interpretation of the narrative, a wearied, seated Christ occupies the central composition, surrounded by the soldiers of Pontius Pilate. An armour-clad figure sets a thorny crown on Christ’s head, while another man places a reed as a sceptre in his left hand. Christ is naked to the waist and turns his head to his left in humble resignation. His wrists are bound with a rope that falls loosely in his lap and coils on the floor beneath. As described in the biblical passage, the captors taunt him with the words, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’
The drama of the episode is enhanced by the curious onlookers, who strain to view the scene through the barred window at left. Technical evidence reveals that Van Dyck added these figures in a later stage of the painting’s production. An earlier version of this painting (destroyed, Berlin, 1945), included a more imposing Roman soldier. Pentimenti in the Prado version indicate it originally had two soldiers at left, but Van Dyck painted them out, instead adding the barking spaniel in the lower corner, distinctly similar to the animal in Peter Paul Rubens’s Raising of the Cross (Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp).
Below the window, a beastly looking torturer lunges toward Christ, but seems to hesitate before striking him (John 19:3). The figure at the far right of the composition stretches his arms apart in a gesture of astonishment. These two figures, as well as the individuals peering through the window, suggest an element of hesitation and even wonderment not always seen in visual representations of Christ’s mocking. Is it possible that these men sense something of Jesus’s words to Pilate, ‘My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world’ (John 19:36)? By incorporating these ambiguous gestures, might Van Dyck be suggesting a moment of dawning revelation on the part of the Roman soldiers?
Barnes, Susan J., et al. 2004. Van Dyck: A Complete Catalogue of the Paintings (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 39–40
Martin, John Rupert, and Gail Feigenbaum. 1979. Van Dyck as Religious Artist (Princeton: Princeton University Press), pp. 20–35, 60–73
Vergara, Alejandro, and Friso Lammertse (eds). 2012. The Young Van Dyck (Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado), pp. 224–27
Thorns and Jewels
Commentary by Jill M. Pederson
This sculpted crown of thorns represents the importance that Christ’s Passion took on when the Spanish transmitted the story to the New World. Yet, as is often the case with cultural confrontation, the Christian episode of the crowning was thoughtfully reimagined when received by local peoples. By the time of the creation of this work in the mid-eighteenth century, Hispanic American society was already highly pluralistic, bringing many European traditions together with native cultural currents. As such, we find the tradition of Christ’s crown of thorns developed in a richly unique way.
The Viceroyalty of Peru had a strong tradition of metalwork, perhaps due to the abundance of gold and silver in the region. The highly skilled metalsmith who made this crown crafted it out of gold repoussé. He worked the beaten gold into four parallel cords, which intertwine to form braided volutes that he then embellished with florets and flame-shaped leaves. This cylindrical structure was then covered with sharply projected thorns, while emeralds, topaz, and other precious stones adorn its glimmering surface.
An 1817 inventory of the Cathedral of Arequipa includes a description of this crown and indicates that it once accompanied an image of the Christ of Charity (Señor de la Caridad), a figure particularly venerated in this community (Esternas Martín 2006: 217). Similar objects have been located in Arequipa’s Mercedarian monastery and the Cathedral of Cuzco. Such crowns are notable for their striking inclusion of the spiky thorns that serve as a dramatic reminder of Christ’s suffering, and even more specifically to the blood that poured forth from his open wounds. Such forms reinforced Counter Reformation teachings in which the Church emphasized celebrations of Corpus Christi, and at times encouraged elaborate processions celebrating the presence of Christ’s blood in the Holy Eucharist.
The contrast of the jagged thorns with the brilliant jewels further suggests something of the complexity of Christ’s crucifixion, which for Christians is at once gory, but also magnificent.
Esternas Martín, Cristina. 2006. ‘Silver and Silverwork, Wealth and Art in Viceregal America’, in The Arts in Latin America: 1492–1820 (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art), pp. 178–189; cat. no. III-28, p. 217
_____. 2004. ‘Acculturation and Innovation in Peruvian Viceregal Silverwork’, in The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork: 1530–1830, ed. by Elena Phipps, et al (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 59–71; cat. no. 91, p. 278
Commentary by Jill M. Pederson
Andrea Solario (1460–1524) excelled in the production of half-length images of the suffering Christ, as seen here in his Christ Bound and Crowned with Thorns. Solario was one of the Lombard followers of Leonardo da Vinci, usually referred to as the ‘Leonardeschi’. Although artistically he drew on Leonardo’s soft sfumato effects and delicate facial types, Solario also looked to the work of painters from Venice, Rome, and Northern Europe. Eventually he transformed his knowledge of these artists into his own distinctive style. His devotional work seeks an intensely emotional response from its audience. His half-length images of Christ enjoyed a particular popularity in Northern Italy around 1500. Small in scale, they were likely intended for individual contemplation and devotion in a domestic context.
In this vein, Solario’s Christ Bound and Crowned with Thorns adopts a distinctly intimate register. The tortured Christ appears close to the picture plane, allowing the viewers to contemplate the bloody wounds intently. Christ’s carefully modelled torso appears profoundly pale in contrast to the deeply shadowed background. His head bows gently to his right in resignation to his capture. His pronounced crown of thorns punctures his brow, releasing streams of blood onto his sallow face. His eyes appear darkened as tears gently roll down his gaunt cheeks. A thick rope surrounds his neck and joins in a large knot at the centre of the chest. Christ’s wrists are bound, with his right hand struggling to hold the reed staff upright.
As described in the biblical passages, the Roman executioners have placed a purple robe around Christ’s shoulders in reference to his claim to be ‘King of the Jews’ (Mark 15:17; John 19:2). They then strike him and kneel down ‘in homage to him’ (Mark 15: 19). In doing so, the mocking soldiers not only deride Christ, but (with inadvertent prophetic insight) point forward to his future enthronement at the right hand of the Father (see Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Matthew 22:44; 25:34; 26:64).
Together, the thorny crown, reed sceptre, and royal robe interject a notion of ambiguity into the image. They point to Christ’s true role, which will ultimately allow for the possibility of eternal salvation, even for the sinners who mercilessly persecute him.
Brown, David Alan. 1987. Andrea Solario (Milan: Electa)
———. 1998. ‘Andrea Solario’, in The Legacy of Leonardo: Painters in Lombardy 1490–1530, ed. by Giulio Bora, et al (Milan: Skira), pp. 231–50
Anthony van Dyck :
The Crowning with Thorns, 1618–20 , Oil on canvas
Marcos del Carpio [attrib.] :
Crown of Thorns, c.1760 , Gold, repoussé, cast, and chased with emeralds, a topaz and other precious stones
Andrea Solario :
Christ Bound and Crowned with Thorns, c.1509 , Oil on panel
Ambiguity in the Mocking
Comparative commentary by Jill M. Pederson
An inherent duality exists in the biblical accounts of Christ’s mocking after his condemnation by Pontius Pilate. In the gospels of Matthew (27:27–31); Mark (15:16–20); and John (19:1–3), we read of Christ’s denigration at the hands of the Roman soldiers, who flog and beat him, while also ironically vesting him in the trappings of a king. The text describes Christ’s detention by the soldiers, who after the trial lead him into the praetorium, where they strip his clothing and cloak him in a ‘purple’ (Mark 15:17; John 19:2) or ‘scarlet’ (Matthew 27:28) robe—a garment denoting royal status. They further their mockery by placing the crown of thorns on his head and thrusting a sceptre, fashioned out of a simple reed, into his hand. These elements symbolized royalty, but at the same time served to belittle Christ, who had been heralded as the ‘King of the Jews’, a claim that contributed to his crucifixion.
While the emphasis in this episode certainly is on Christ’s cruel torture, there is an important prophetic element emerging from the allusion to his status as a king. The ambiguous nature of the episode emerges strongly in the visual tradition associated with the crowning and the robing of Christ.
This ambiguity surfaces in Anthony Van Dyck’s Prado Crowning with Thorns. In this painting, we find the soldiers and executioners taunting Christ with their cruel ridicule. While the soldiers bind Christ’s hands and mock him with the farcical crown and reed sceptre, there appears some ambivalence on the part of the captors. For example, the background figures remain forceful in their brutal treatment of Christ, yet the kneeling figure in the foreground looks slightly sympathetic as he leans in to offer the droopy reed. The red cloaked figure at right gazes with pity at Christ, while he simultaneously flings his hands outward in a gesture that tellingly recalls Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus. In that latter painting, the disciple dramatically extends his arms wide at the recognition of Christ after the resurrection. Caravaggio conveys the miraculous nature of the moment through the emphatically foreshortened gesture. By echoing the gesture in the Crowning, Van Dyck (certainly familiar with Caravaggio’s work) implies that the executioner has recognized Christ’s divinity. Even if subtly, Van Dyck seems to leave open the possibility that the tormentor is experiencing his own revelatory moment in which he realizes Christ’s true nature.
Andrea Solario’s take on the episode builds on a long visual tradition of representations of Christ’s afflicted body prior to the Crucifixion. In this portrayal, we find Christ positioned frontally and already bearing the crown, reed, and robe. The position sets up the figure as the Ecce Homo, in which Pontius Pilate presents the flagellated Christ and declares ‘behold the man’ to the unruly crowds before him (John 19:5). Such depictions remind the viewer of the abhorrent treatment of Christ. His forlorn expression evinces his sorrow, yet in Solario’s version dignity prevails. Again, we are reminded of Christ’s inherent divinity, despite his scourged appearance.
The duality of the episode is perhaps most evident in the richly adorned sculpted crown from the Cathedral of Arequipa. Here the twisted thorny branches have been transformed into precious gold. The artist has plaited the crown, according to its precise description in the biblical texts (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; John 19:2). The fiercely spiked surface serves as a harsh reminder of Christ’s pain and bloodshed, and was likely meant to move the viewer on a bodily level. However, the dazzling gold and shimmering gems ultimately reminded the viewer of Christ’s glory, and the eventual human salvation that was made possible through his persecution.
The irony of the crowning and robing fills many of its artistic renderings. Indeed, the visual idiom may have lent itself nicely to the ambiguity inherent in the story in which Christ is affectingly anguished, but prophetic and divine at the same time.
Images related to this episode also, in various ways, convey a sense of inner conflict in the men who at once torture Christ, and yet also somehow seem to recognize his extraordinary nature. They point to a subtle implication in the biblical text, which records the horrors of these actions, but also allows for the possible salvation of the sinners who perpetrate them—the ultimate evidence of God’s grace.