Christ Carrying the Cross by Jan van Hemessen

Jan van Hemessen

Christ Carrying the Cross, 1553, Oil on panel, 111 x 98 cm, Keresztény Múzeum (Christian Museum), Esztergom, Photo: A. Mudrak, Courtesy Christian Museum, Esztergom

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The Son of Man Will Also Be Ashamed

Commentary by

Jan van Hemessen’s Christ Carrying the Cross focusses on the figure of Christ who fills the panel and is represented so near to the picture plane that he seems almost in the beholder’s space. His face is a study in innocent suffering, with its strong expression of tearful sorrow. His eyes look directly at the viewer—we are immediately drawn to them—yet at the same time the painting communicates the intense impression of his aloneness.

Christ’s face contrasts utterly with those of the gloating mob who press around him. The mocking figures on the right—reminiscent of Quentin Massys’s grotesques—seem to have no compassion, no understanding whatsoever, of the person they are torturing through their ridicule, contempt, and cruelty. One of them ominously holds the end of a rope slung around Jesus’s neck; he is—literally—bound to die. These mockers seem to epitomize the shameful ‘adulterous and sinful generation’ of whom the Son, too, will be ashamed (Mark 8:38). On the left of Christ, just visible, are the swarthy soldiers whose spears add to the torment and violence of the scene. Jesus is surrounded by men of evil action.

The expressive portrayal of Jesus here is very much in the tradition of the Schmerzensmann (‘Man of Sorrows’), with Italian origins in the influential image-type known as the imago pietatis. Hemessen’s Schmerzensmann shares with this wider tradition an emphasis on how Jesus was ‘despised and rejected’ (Isaiah 53:3)—an emphasis taken to an extreme in Northern art forty years earlier in Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion panel for the Isenheim altarpiece (1512–16). In Grünewald’s stark rendering of Jesus’s horrific death, just as in Hemessen’s agonized Man of Sorrows, we are confronted by Jesus as he takes on the sin of the world for our redemption.

Yet, as co-sufferer, he is also one with whom we may identify in our own suffering and in this, perhaps, find comfort.


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