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.
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”
34 And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37For what can a man give in return for his life? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
9 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
23 And he said to all, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. 25For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. 27But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”