The Way to Calvary by Jacopo Bassano

Jacopo Bassano

The Way to Calvary, c.1544–45, Oil on canvas, 145.3 x 132.5 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought with a contribution from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, 1984, NG6490, © National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

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Tribulation and Distress

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

Jacopo Bassano’s painting of Christ on the way to Calvary shows the moment at which the legendary St Veronica offers him her veil to wipe his face, leaving his portrait imprinted on the cloth. This came to be known as ‘the Veronica’ and was considered an authentic image of Christ. Here we see, not the portrait, but Christ himself and, perhaps even more arrestingly, Veronica taking on his likeness.

On her knees in the road, her posture reflects Christ’s, and her bare head (the other women are discreetly veiled, with downcast eyes) shows her crown of plaits, echoing Christ’s crown of thorns. Her mirroring of Christ is further revealed by her clothing. The sections of her white petticoat are loosely stitched, leaving almond-shaped openings which prefigure the shape of Christ’s side wound, while the vertical stitch marks bring to mind the flagellation marks hidden beneath Christ’s robe. As Christ is led by a rope, like a ‘sheep to be slaughtered’ (Romans 8:36) Veronica is alongside him in ‘tribulation’, ‘distress’, ‘persecution’, and ‘peril’ (v.35), and her hair and garments manifest this.

In part, this is a picture about picture-making, and the legendary origins of a foundational image of the adult Christ. It is also about a particular incidence of what one might now call ‘Christian witness’ or, perhaps, since she is in a sense an image-maker, ‘artist witness’. Veronica’s offering of her veil here is as much an offering of herself in conformity to Christ. And if she is not yet bodily redeemed (v.23), she is about to be blessed with the imprint on the veil, which cannot yet be seen but will become a source of hope and consolation to many (vv.24–25).

 

References

Kessler, H. L., and G. Wolf (eds). 1998. The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, Villa Spelman Colloquia, Volume 6 (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale)

Kuryluk, E. 1991. Veronica and Her Cloth: History, Symbolism, and Structure of a "True" Image (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

Reddaway, Chloë. R. 2019. Strangeness and Recognition: Mystery and Familiarity in Renaissance Images of Christ (Turnhout: Brepols), pp.164–173

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