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Bosch's 'Christ Carrying the Cross.' (painting by Hieronymus Bosch)

Gordon Marsden looks at how a Passion portrayal by one of the Middle Ages' most enigmatic painters, unlocks the door to the intense world of late medieval religious devotion.

Of all the religious art that survives from Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, that dealing with the events of the Passion of Christ is among the most powerful and pervasive. Whether set out in the high art commissioned for great rulers, rich bourgeois, church dignitaries or institutions, or in the low art of cheap woodcut sheets or illustrating devotional books now widely available to the layman via the new medium of printing, the final stages of Christ's life, from the triumphal Jerusalem entry on Palm Sunday, through to the agonies and trauma of the garden of Gethsemane and the killing-field of Golgotha, were rendered with a power and obsession previously unattained in a thousand years of Christian art.

This development was not an isolated aesthetic fashion. It sprang from crucial changes in theology, doctrine and religious devotion, both private and public. As artists representing the Passion had a common body of symbols, gestures and images with which to work, there was no need -- and little inclination, in a world where Gregory the Great had declared that religious painting was the bible of the unlettered, and the concept of `art for art's sake', yoked to a function either religious or secular, was unknown -- for an artist to branch out and produce his own private iconography (such as Picasso was to do in the twentieth century with `Guernica').

So when we come to look at the Passion paintings of Hieronymus Bosch we should take on board this `health warning' and avoid the wilder theories of psychological disorder or hallucinogen-induced creativity. Bosch is not Van Gogh avant la lettre -- a tortured individualist trying to find relief and expression in his own creative idiosyncrasies. What documentary details we have of Bosch's life -- and they are scanty -- place him firmly in the orthodoxies of society and belief in the Northern Europe of the late Middle Ages.

His genius though -- and it is never more sharply exposed than in his painting of `Christ Carrying The Cross' that today hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent -- lies in the way he takes the late medieval perspectives of the Passion and stretches them to aesthetic screaming point. And if we have the keys to unlock his iconographical doors, all the turbulent and intense belief of that world tumbles out through his painting.

`De Kruisdraging'-- the 74 x 81 cm Ghent depiction of Christ on his way to crucifixion after condemnation before Pilate -- is one of at least three surviving versions of this scene that can be attributed firmly to Bosch. It is probably the last of them, painted in the later stages of his life before his death in 1516 -- just a year before Martin Luther was to turn Christendom upside down with the ninety-five theses that were to spark off the Reformation. The painting incorporates the basic elements common to earlier representations, by both Bosch and other artists, of Christ carrying the cross -- the condemned Saviour on his way to a shameful death surrounded by officials and bystanders. But it is a composition foreshortened and intensified to maximum emotional effect.

At the centre of the painting, with the great beam of the cross forming a compositional diagonal from top left to bottom right, is Jesus himself; not prostrate as in some versions of the scene but clearly afflicted by the burden, physical and mental, of the instrument of execution which Simon of Cyrene, press-ganged by the authorities to help carry the cross, struggles to grip (with hands more like paws) at the top right of the painting.

There are other figures in the painting who are individuals identifiable, like Simon, from the Gospel narratives. At bottom right is the `bad thief' who rails against Christ during their joint crucifixion at Calvary. Here he shows no stoicism in the face of death. but gives as good as he gets to his jeering tormentors, his snarling and distended face all but fixed in a premature rigor mortis. By contrast, above him at the top of the painting, the `good thief', who begs Christ's forgiveness when they hang together at Golgotha, seems already overborne by being under the same condemnation as God. His blood-drained face and half-closed eyes are evocative of a man assailed by a demonic figure dressed in the outfit of a friar (a group that provided a rich seam for abuse in medieval anti-clericalism).

The friar is emblematic of the key compositional element of the painting commented on by the turn-of-the-century German art historian Max Friedlander. He declared the Ghent paining `remarkable for the densely packed mass of horrible, hate-distorted heads with which, heedless of natural spatial effect, Bosch has filled the entire picture plane'.

This vision of the forces of darkness assailing -- and all but obliterating -- those of light is a common theme of Bosch's paintings of the saints, notably his Temptations of St Anthony and St Jerome (a copy of the latter is also in the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent). Here at the moment of human history where the supreme example of those forces of light -- the Son of God himself -- is all but extinguished by the victory of evil, Bosch's genius is to interpret this as the claustrophobic crush of a satanically-inspired crowd surrounding him.

But to the left of Christ one figure remains separate and untouched by this frenzy -- her isolation emphasised by facing left while the crowd swirls rightwards across the picture, almost dragging Jesus with them. This incorporation of `St Veronica' into the painting underlines the fascination of late medieval religion for embroidering the bare details of the Gospel with apocryphal elements.

Here it is the woman who was supposed, out of compassion, to have given Christ her kerchief to dry his sweat as he laboured under the weight of the cross -- the reward for her piety was the miraculous imprint of his face on the cloth as depicted here. This legend, linked with earlier ones of images of the Holy Face by the thirteenth-century mystic Roger Argenteuil, fuelled the production of a profusion of stand-alone images in late medieval art, whether in panel painting or cheap woodcut, and established the image of the `vernicle' in a `top ten' of popular piety (the name of the saint herself -- Veronica -- is a corruption from the Greek -- vera ikon).

Veronica and her miraculous image serve here to provide a dramatic juxtaposition. The face imprinted on the cloth has the `haunted, hunted look' of Pilate's description in the modern rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (which compositionally itself owes more to the Passion Plays of the Middle Ages than many might imagine). But that of Veronica herself wears a serenity and detachment (even down to an enigmatic half-smile) which echoes the actual face of Christ to her right. The contrast between this and the ignoble strife of the madding crowd of his tormentors could not be greater. But in an art which is always functional and didactic, what is the message here that Bosch is out to convey?

To answer that we need to return to the immediate context of the artist's life. The town of `s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived and worked, was one of the larger centres in the duchy of Brabant, itself part of the Low Countries territories of the dukes of Burgundy. Though it was remote from their court culture, `s-Hertogenbosch was far from immune from the intellectual and devotional developments of late medieval religion, and in particular the revival of lay piety. The old idea, promoted by nineteenth-century Protestant historians, that vitality had entirely ebbed from the devotional practices of the church at ground level has been more and more contradicted over the past twenty years. Eamon Duffy has demonstrated this for England most recently in his book The Stripping of the Altars, and the same story can be told across Northern Europe.

By 1500, `s-Hertogenbosch was richly provided with religious foundations, guilds, and, of particular importance, the brotherhoods or `confraternities' in which the pious layperson could deepen faith and. devotion, often in conjunction with ordained religious. One of these in `s-Hertogenbosch was the Brotherhood of Our Lady, dedicated to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and with which Bosch was closely associated throughout his life. His name appears in the Brotherhood's membership lists for 1486-87 (when he was probably in his mid-twenties), he executed artistic commissions for them over the next thirty years, and his death and Requiem Mass, organised by the Brotherhood, are recorded in their August 1516 accounts.

This impulse to a middle way between the established formal religious orders and a rote religion of the layman as passive spectator at the church's great masses and ceremonies was behind another Low Countries movement which has been characterised as the `devotio moderna'. Centred around the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life set up in and around Deventer (only fifty miles or so from `s-Hertogenbosch) in the late fourteenth century by the mystic and reformer Gerard Groote, the devotio moderna aimed to return its adherents to a more private, personal and simpler religion which could encompass both laity and those in holy orders -- in the world, but not of it.

If Deventer was the devotio moderna's centre, its key text was the work of a priest who had originally attached himself to the community there and subsequently wrote a biography of its founder. Thomas a Kempis Imitation of Christ, written (probably) some time in the 1440s (a Kempis died in 1471), breathes a philosophy rooted in Jesus' stark injunction in the Gospel (Matthew 16.24) `if any man would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me'. A Kempis' contemporary biographer stresses that the mystic `had an especial devotion to the Passion of Our Lord, and understood admirably how to comfort those afflicted by interior trials and temptations'.

Time and again the themes of Bosch's religious work stress the detachment, the denial and the asceticism which are practiced by his saints such as Jerome and Anthony. Such principles underwrote the activities of the lay fraternities. Detachment in taking up the cross is what we see par excellence in the Ghent depiction of the great exemplar of Christian living, Jesus himself.

At the same time the physical frenzy of the events of the Passion dominated late medieval piety. In a world which in Huizinga's celebrated words, `bore the mixed scent of blood and roses'. the Passion was a great drama. as the great Mystery Plays that dealt with it as one of their subjects (and which retain their emotional power in modern-day revivals) demonstrated. The emphasis on the physical anguish and torments of Jesus during the last hours of his life was powerfully interwoven with a preoccupation with the symbols and relics -- real or manufactured -- of his Passion. The common thread running through late medieval devotional literature is the need, as one commentator put it, `to shew the passion' -- for the individual to be immersed in its theatre.

All the great mystics of the period display this characteristic -- from the fifteenth-century English recluse Julian of Norwich, whose Revelations of Divine Love include minutely detailed, and to the modern mind macabre, visions of the dying Christ (`I could see that the dear skin and tender flesh, the hair and the blood, were hanging loose from the bone, gouged by the thorns in many places. It seemed about to drop off, heavy and loose, still holding its natural moisture, sagging like a cloth'), through to a Kempis himself (`the Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you... look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross').

The practical by-product of this was a concentration on detail of the Passion account that would enable the believer to enter more vividly into the experience. One of the cults that developed was that of the `Arma Christi' -- the `arms' or accoutrements of Jesus' passion. The allusion was to chivalry -- the `favours' that the gallant knight carried with him as tokens of his bravery and endurance. The Arma Christi acted as a pictogram; a series of images providing an aide-memoire to the re-creation of the chronology of the Saviour's last hours for the purpose of devotional activity.

They included the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrayed Christ, the cock that crowed after Peter had denied Jesus three times after his arrest, the pillar against which Christ received his flagellation, and, in most examples, the vernicle, as included in Bosch's painting. Most disturbingly the Arma Christi also paraded the disembodied heads of those who reviled or tormented Christ. A glance at any of them will confirm their close relation to the cluster of distorted faces that appear in Bosch's `Christ Carrying the Cross' in Ghent.

It is not surprising that this (to our minds) obsessively mechanistic piety reaches its logical conclusion in late fifteenth-century manuscripts that attempt to calculate the number of wounds suffered by Jesus as a result of his flagellation or crucifixion -- with their visual counterpart in the horrific Isenheim altarpiece of the Crucifixion by Grunewald, contemporary with the Ghent painting. One late fifteenth-century English lyric sums up the intensity of this approach: `I would be clad in Christ's skin'.

But there was another aspect to this meditation on the Passion which has a bearing on Bosch's representation of it. The Ghent painting illustrates an actual moment of human experience -- a snapshot of a real-time historic event. But the painting also acts as a devotional icon beyond time -- one that is constantly recurring in the life and experience of the believer.

This idea of a `Perpetual Passion' -- that the sins and failings of humankind were continuously renewing and revalidating the sufferings of Christ -- was one that had particular resonance to the world of the late Middle Ages. This was after all a society on the edge of a half-millennium and to whom the combination of plague (the Black Death and subsequent epidemics had carried off over a third of the population of Western Europe), schism (the division of Christendom between rival popes had only just been healed), the anti-Christ Turk (who had recently extirpated a thousand years of Eastern Christianity by capturing Constantinople and who now threatened Europe, west of Budapest) and syphilis (the AIDS of its day newly arrived from the New World in the 1490s, just when Bosch was at the height of his powers) gave a decidedly fin de siecle atmosphere.

For Margery Kempe, the fifteenth-century King's Lynn mystic and lay woman who was a cut-price version of Julian of Norwich, this `Perpetual Passion' translated very literally. Rebuked by a priest for bursting into tears over a pieta of the dead Christ in the arms of his mother with the words `Madam, Jesus has been dead a long time', she responded `Sir, his death is as fresh to me as if he had died this very day, and it seems to me that it ought to be like that for you and for all Christian people.' The inclusion of contemporary armour and clothing in paintings such as the Bosch `Christ Carrying the Cross' was not just poetic -- or dramatic -- licence; it was intended to convey a profound theological and devotional truth.

How then was the Christian of this society to resolve the tension between the need for immersion in the drama of the Passion and for detachment from the distractions and sufferings of the world? Bosch's paintings hints at a response increasingly adopted by those who might have viewed it. Assailed by the uncertainties and temptations of a declining world, the believer as `God's knight' must be prepared to ride out to battle, but also ultimately be able to shut himself off from them. Thus in Durer's famous engraving `The World, the Knight and the Devil', the Knight is emblematic of the pious layman who has withdrawn into himself, to contemplate the eternal verities of the perfect knight in the life and sufferings of Christ.

The textual counterpart to this came in the Books of Hours -- the `hortuli animae' (gardens of the soul), primers and other devotional works that the spread of printing made available to the laity in tens of thousands from the 1470s inwards. Armed with such books -- which contained meditations on the Passion, images and prayers incorporating various devotions, such as the Arma Christi and the Mass of St Gregory associated with the Passion, both in and out of time -- the believer could conduct his or her parallel spiritual exercise privately alongside the corporate acts of worship of the Catholic Church. As Roger Chartier has put it:

This new genre of text became the

source of a revolution in the experience

of the mass in the consciousness

of those who attended it, and as such

was profoundly subversive to the outward

liturgical uniformity according to

the use of Rome... among the laity the

custom of bringing books of hours,

tracts on the mass and other texts to

church spread without any serious

attempt by the authorities to impede it.

In itself this privatised devotion to the Passion was not necessarily the wellspring of heresy. One of its most high-profile practitioners was in fact Thomas More, executed as a Catholic martyr under Henry VIII for refusing to deny the pope's authority and the pre-Reformation settlement. More's devotional regimen was derived from that same world of the devotio moderna that influenced Bosch. While a young man, More led a double life, combining secular activities as an MP and lawyer with a quasi-monastic devotional existence at Charterhouse, performing spiritual exercises and meditation with the monks in the early morning and late at night. More's great humanist soul mate, Erasmus, had been schooled in Deventer and he reflected the simplifying tenets of Groote and the devotio moderna, while rejecting the anti-intellectual aspects of the Brethren of the Common life and the Imitation of Christ.

Significantly, it was to contemplation of Christ's Passion that More returned during the final months of his life in the Tower, while awaiting execution. There he composed his `Dialogue of Comfort', a meditation in English on the Passion, as well as his last work, written in Latin, De Tristitia (which takes its title from the Vulgate version of Christ's words at Gethsemane `tristis anima mea usque ad mortem' -- `my soul is sorrowful, even unto death').

De Tristitia is a carefully controlled dissection of the Gospel narrative of the Passion: More brings all his humanistic scholarship to bear on a blow-by-blow examination of its real-time events -- right down to discussing who the young man is that in St Mark's gospel witnesses Christ's arrest, and who when spotted by the crowd, evades capture by throwing off the linen cloth the crowd attempt to grab, fleeing naked. But De Tristitia is also a spiritual exercise designed to take the reader -- and not least More himself -- `out of time'; shielded from the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune that condemns, in More's case, a disciple to suffer death for his beliefs.

And with this we are back to Bosch's moment in time; the frenzy and drama of Christ carrying the cross, but within the painting a timeless message of how to derive comfort and achieve redemption from this most horrific Passion. `O mors ero tua mors' -- `O death, I will be thy death', as the chant for Holy Saturday -- the limbo day between Christ's crucifixion and resurrection -- puts it. The spiritual message that Bosch conveys in his Ghent `Carrying the Cross' is perfectly summarised by the American art historian Walter Gibson:

They are carnal men, still immersed in

the troubles of this world, but Christ

has withdrawn to a higher sphere

where his persecutors cannot reach

him. In the midst of suffering he is

victorious. And to all who take up his

cross and follow him, Christ promises

the same victory over the World and

the Flesh.

Veronica already enjoys a taste of that victory in the painting; a Kempis promises it to those who take up his `imitation of Christ', Thomas More hopes to experience it by disciplining his scholarship to a devotional purpose under the most fearful psychological pressures of isolation and imminent death.

The subsequent aesthetic influence both of the imagery and mood evoked by Bosch's `Christ Carrying the Cross' is considerable. It can be seen in the reflective chorales of Lutheran piety in Bach's great St Matthew and St John Passions, and in quite direct artistic terms in the work of Bosch's nineteenth-century Belgian fin de siecle counterpart James Ensor, in his contemporary costumed depiction of `The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889' and, intriguingly, in his painting `Old Lady with Masks', where the female figure is imbued with something of the same detachment of the Bosch Christ.

But for the historian perhaps the abiding importance of the painting is what it tells us of the strengths and tensions in the religion of late medieval Northern Europe. Self-absorbed piety that promoted a sense of detachment in turn could lead to alienation from the mainframe of Catholic Christianity, if the accessories of saints, pilgrimages and relics, all bolted on to the devotional charge of a Passion-centred religion were suddenly to be found wanting, as they were in the Reformation.

More, discussing in De Tristitia the young man casting off his cloak to evade capture, sees it as a metaphor of the soul prepared to cast off `end patiently endure the loss of the body for the love of God... just as the snake sloughs off its old skin'. Perhaps the end-product (much as More would have deplored it) of `being clad in Christ's skin', an exercise which Bosch's `Carrying the Cross' so sharply sets in context, was for some at least sloughing off the skin of medieval Christianity for the morning star of Protestantism?

Gordon Marsden is Editor of History Today and associate lecturer in Culture and Belief in Europe, 1450-1600 for the Open University.
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Author:Marsden, Gordon
Publication:History Today
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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