Christ on the Cold Stone

Unknown Flemish artist

Christ on the Cold Stone, 1443, Polychrome wood, Hôtel-Dieu of Beaune, France, Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

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Journey’s End

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

‘Christ on the Cold Stone’ is the name given to a particular representation of Christ which enjoyed popularity in the piety of late medieval northern Europe. Such representations show Christ sitting on a stone, stripped, crowned with thorns, and marked with the wounds of his flagellation, awaiting his crucifixion. In this particular version, a skull by his left foot indicates that Christ is at Golgotha (‘which means the place of a skull’; Matthew 27:33). A heavy and tightly woven crown of thorns binds his head, while his hands and feet are bound by a sinuous rope.

Of course, the representation of a forlorn Christ on a bleak rock is not authorized by the Gospels, for in their telling of the story of Christ’s Passion there is no such pause in the proceedings. Instead, the representation is an attempt to summarise the Passion, as art historian Émile Mâle puts it, and indeed to summarise the meaning of Christ’s life taken as a whole: for it is as a prisoner that Christ most truly takes on the human condition in which we are ourselves tightly bound by our histories, circumstances, needs, desires, and longings. 

That Christ should end his earthly life as a prisoner is fitting, then, for the meaning of that life is in his sharing in the human condition, becoming a prisoner for the sake of prisoners. In many depictions of the child who travels from Egypt towards Israel, the child already sees or senses that his path lies finally towards Jerusalem (‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you!’; Matthew 23:37), and thus contemplates the nature of his calling—not from bondage to the freedom of the promised land, as at the first exodus, but, at this second exodus, from safety to bondage.

Only for us, for whom this journey is undertaken, do the words, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’ (v.15), resonate with the joy of that first and original calling. For Christ, the calling is to the cold stone.

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