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.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, 29and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the praetorium); and they called together the whole battalion. 17And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. 18And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
19 Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. 2And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple robe; 3they came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands.