Christ Crowned with Thorns (Bosch, London)
|Type||Oil on wood|
|Dimensions||73 cm × 59 cm (29 in × 23 in)|
|Location||National Gallery, London|
Christ Crowned with Thorns is a work by Hieronymus Bosch painted sometime between 1490 and 1500. It currently resides in the National Gallery in London.
The painting presents the viewer with a double departure; 'the painting differs dramatically from the artist's own usual style' and ' it differs subtly from the standardised representation of the scene as it had been evolved during the preceding centuries.'  Like generations of artists before him, Bosch was expected to turn out a repertoire of scenes from the Passion of Christ. The earthly sufferings and Crucifixion of Christ had gradually been given greater prominence since a shift in theological emphasis during the ninth century. (The veneration of Christ had centred on the exaltation of his image as Christ in Majesty until that time.) This had led to a greater demand for devotional images of Christ's Passion. Preoccupation with the Passion had been fostered particularly by Bernard of Clairvaux during the 12th century. By Bosch's time the Passion and the Stations of the Cross had been 'parcelled out into a complex system for devotional meditation, represented by a sequence of standardised scenes'  - the poor saw them in the stained glass windows of their churches and painted on its walls. The physical cruelty of the tormentors and the pain of Christ's sufferings had also become more overt in their expression over time. (For example in Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'The Crowning with Thorns' - early representations of the 'Crowning with Thorns' showed nothing of the suffering and pathos that characterised the late medieval scene.) In a break with this tradition, instead of the usual violence, Bosch shows the scene before the violence hits.
The question arises - why this deliberate restraint. Bosch was quite capable of reproducing the standard version of the Crowning with Thorns, indeed he does so in the grisaille painting of the Mass of Saint Gregory on the outside of the wings of The Epiphany Altarpiece, painted around the same time as this picture. And his two other known paintings of the Crowning with Thorns retain the traditional sense of violence and pathos that this painting transcends. One is known only from copies, but the second, a tondo in the Escorial is unanimously acknowledged as Bosch's work. Compared with most of his work, the burghers of 's-Hertogenbosch would probably have found this Christ Crowned with Thorns shockingly 'modern', particularly in its composition. His use of a group of half-length figures isolated against a plain background, with the central figure of Christ looking out towards the viewer, had its origins in Northern Italy. In the opinion of Richard Foster and Pamela Tudor-Craig (in their book The Secret Life of Paintings), the composition Bosch uses can be traced back to a prototype by Leonardo da Vinci: his picture of 'Christ Disputing among the Doctors', painted in 1504, probably for Isabella D'Este. The painting is now lost and we know it only from a copy by Bernardino Luini. The seminal influence of Leonardo is reflected in other pictures of the same subject painted by his contemporaries. Albrecht Dürer, whose career overlaps with Bosch's travelled twice from Nuremberg to Venice where he was profoundly influenced by the work of Leonardo. While in Venice, in 1506, Dürer painted his own version of Christ Disputing among the Doctors - a 'close-up' view, borrowed from Leonardo. Although there is no evidence that Hieronymus Bosch ever left his home town of S'Hertogenbosch, equally there is no proof that he spent his entire life rooted at home. Even if he did not travel as far as Italy, a wealthy man like Bosch must have had the opportunity, at least, to catch the Italian influence at second-hand. Perhaps it was Dürer who provided the link between Leonardo's use of this arrangement of figures and its appearance in Bosch's painting. Apart from the basic composition, two other aspects of Dürer's Christ Disputing among the Doctors find echos in Bosch's Christ Crowned with Thorns - the carefully differentiated faces of the people around Christ and the choreographed interplay of their hands.
The Tormentors around Christ
The devout of the Middle Ages did not see the Passion of Christ as just a distant historical event. They believed that their own sins continued to torment and wound the actual Body of Christ in a perpetual Passion. When Christ's sufferings were acted out in the Mystery Plays, the performers dressed in contemporary clothes, not the costume of the Biblical Holy Land, and the contemporary costume leads to contemporary references in the painting. In the early 16th century it seemed to many Christians that the Passion of Christ was being reenacted in scandalous attacks upon the Body of the Church by the Papacy itself. Bosch was painting Christ Crowned with Thorns only a few years before the outcry against corruption in the hierarchy of the Church reached a climax in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five propositions to the church door at Wittenberg, precipitating the Church into Protestant Reformation. Bosch had often singled out the religious orders and upper echelons of the Church for sadistic treatment in his depictions of Hell. This painting implies the same criticism. The standard medieval representation of the Emblems of the Passion showed the face of Christ surrounded by four heads representing the church, the ruling class, the bourgeois and the peasant - the blame for the Crucifixion of Christ was apportioned between all classes of society, lay and spiritual. Bosch exploits the familiarity of this arrangement of heads in his composition but points the finger at specific targets of his day. The oak leaves worn in the hat of the tormentor in the top right hand corner of the picture would have been instantly recognised as the badge of the della Rovere family, in particular of Giuliano della Rovere (1443–1513) who had become Pope Julius II in 1503. Julius II had sought to strengthen the temporal power of the Papacy by 'devious diplomacy' and military force. In 1509 he joined with the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and Louis XII of France against the Republic of Venice. He took upon himself the role of a general. Erasmus made frequent derogatory comparisons between Pope Julius II and Julius Caesar, his namesake. In Julius Exclusus, usually attributed to Erasmus, Julius is shut out of Heaven for his earthly sins. At the gates of Heaven St.Peter voices the revulsion of Europe: "While you wear on the outside the splendid attire of a priest, underneath you are utterly horrendous with the clatter of bloody weapons." The tormentor with his badge of oak leaves is thought to depict a hired soldier or official in the pay of the Pope himself.
In the standard medieval layout of the faces around Christ and the Emblems of the Passion the representatives of spiritual and temporal power were the upper figures. By this analogy the second upper figure in Bosch's painting should represent temporal power, and indeed he does. This tormentor, with the bolt of a cross-bow through his hat, also appears in both Bosch's other versions of the Crowning with Thorns. The tondo in the Escorial shows him wearing a badge of the double-headed eagle of the Holy Roman Empire. So in these two tormentors the alliance of the Pope and the Emperor against the Body of the Church may be seen. The lower figures in the standard layout were representatives of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry. In Bosch's painting the lower left-hand figure wears the costume of a rich merchant, and the tormentor on the right wears the everyday dress of the period. But here again Bosch is more specific. Among the accusations levelled against Pope Julius II, the most vehement were that not only did he borrow money from the Jews, and thereby encourage usury, but he was even prepared to make alliances with the infidel Turks. "So Bosch further identifies the right-hand figure as a Jew by his physiognomy, and the left-hand figure as an infidel by the crescent moon and star of Islam on his headdress." 
A contemporary layer of meaning however, is not the only layer. The tormentors around Christ may further be viewed as personifications of the four temperaments. According to medieval medicine, defects of body and mind were caused by the imbalance of the four fluids which were thought to govern the constitution of the body, the four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. The ideal man had all four humours in perfect balance. In imperfect human creatures the varying mixture of humours accounted for differences of personality and physique: an excess of blood made a man sanguine; phlegm, phlegmatic; black bile,melancholic; and yellow bile, choleric. According to this scheme then, the choleric temperament is possessed by the tormentor on the top left of the painting, the sanguine, by the tormentor on the top right, the phlegmatic, bottom left, and the melancholic temperament, bottom right. And Bosch would not have been the only artist to employ this personification of the temperaments. Albrecht Dürer produced a woodcut called The Mens Bath House around 1496 and used the subject to explore the differences between the physiology of the four temperaments. Thirty years later, in what was probably his last painting, he applied the same device to his twin panel paintings of The Four Apostles, each of whom represents a particular temperament. St. John represents the sanguine type, St.Peter, is the phlegmatic, St.Mark is the choleric and St. Paul, the melancholic. By assigning one of the temperaments to each of the Four Apostles, Dürer was making them stand as representatives of all Mankind.
But Bosch's metaphor does not end with the four temperaments. In the medieval world picture, everything connected. The body of Man was seen as a microcosm of the macrocosm. Every medieval almanack, like the Shepherds Calendar or the Guildbook of the Barber Surgeons of York usually included a diagram of the human body showing which parts of the anatomy were governed by which signs of the Zodiac. Inevitably, the four human temperaments were seen to be subject to a particular planet. Jupiter presided over the sanguine man, who wears in his hat a sprig of oak leaves, the emblem Julius II had appropriated from the God Jupiter. The phlegmatic temperament, being watery, was governed by the moon. Mars, the war-bringer was the planet ruling the choleric temperament, and the melancholic came under the shadow of Saturn. Finally, as our temperaments reflected the celestial workings of the cosmos, so they were subject to the material nature common to the whole of visible creation. The four temperaments 'are referred unto the four elements' - that is the four primary elements of which all matter was believed to be composed - Fire, Air, Earth and Water. Though there was some variation in the relating of the temperaments to the four elements, the most common was that Fire inflamed the choleric; Air breathed vitality into the sanguine; Earth weighed down the melancholic; and Water dissipated the phlegmatic. In Bosch's painting the ideal man, within each of us, is hedged about and confined by the human limitations of the four temperaments and the material limitations of the four elements. (Whilst it might be thought that such speculation leads away from Orthodox Christianity of the Low Countries in the early 16th century, in fact Christian dogma and pagan beliefs were all integrated parts of the medieval world picture. A Compendium of Christian Faith, for example, written in 1404 for Duke Albert of Bavaria, Count of Holland, one of many such popular compendia, interweaves the signs of the Zodiac, the four temperaments and the four elements between concepts of God and the Trinity and the story of Creation).
The Imitation of Christ
Four tormentors, four humours, four temperaments, four elements - how could man escape from this imprisonment? Erasmus had written in his Enchiridion militis Christiani : "The chief hope and comfort of victory is if thou know thyself to the uttermost...There was never no storm of vices that did so overcome and quench the heat of charity but it might be restored again at the flintstone of Christ. Let Christ continue and abide as He is indeed a very centre or middle point unmoved. " "Here is the stillness that we find in the heart of Bosch's painting: the face of Christ, unmoved and unmarked by his assailants. Here is the stillness that marks off Bosch's scene from a hundred others...There is no breathing space in the picture, yet there is all the time in the world: a single moment is projected beyond its present into an eternal dimension. This is the stuff of meditation, and the real function of any devotional image. This is why the people of late Middle Ages dwelt so obsessively on the sufferings of Christ. It was not just morbid fascination. They believed that identification with the Passion of Christ was the only way through the torments of this world to personal salvation." 
And a movement towards a more personal mysticism beyond passive participation in the formalised ritual of the Church had been forming in the Low Countries for more than a century, based on just this kind of meditation. Religion in Bosch's home town was progressive rather than conservative. S'Hertogenbosch was unusually well provided with monasteries and convents. Although corruption and laxity within traditional Orders gave Bosch material for some of his most biting satires, one religious society, the Brethren of the Common Life, continued the simplicity and holiness with which it had been founded over a century earlier. It had grown up outside the hierarchies of the established Church and independent of the Universities. The Order was founded by Gerard Groote and approved by Pope Gregory XI in 1376. Erasmus had been educated at the houses of the Brethren of the Common Life at Deventer and at S'Hertogenbosch, where he spent three years. The school set the religious tone in Bosch's home town and in his work, and it is not surprising to find parallels between the caustic writing of Erasmus and the often savage painting of Bosch. Although the Brethren remained loyal to the Pope, they denounced the abuses and scandalous behaviour of many religious. In the early 15th century the Brethren of the Common Life became part of the wider Devotio Moderna movement. The new emphasis was on self-knowledge and morality. Above all it stressed the personal responsibility for salvation through an earthly life modelled on the humanity and virtues of Christ. The testament of the Brethren of the Common Life was The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), written at the monastery of St. Agnes around 1413. In the book the only escape from imprisonment by the torments of sin, the temperaments of humanity, and of the elements of material existence, - "the only road to oneness with God is by treading the Royal Road to the Holy Cross - devotion to Christ Crucified." It is against this devotional background that Bosch's Christ Crowned with Thorns should be placed. The Imitation of Christ could, indeed, be a sub-title for the painting.
||Constructs such as ibid., loc. cit. and idem are discouraged by Wikipedia's style guide for footnotes, as they are easily broken. Please improve this article by replacing them with named references (quick guide), or an abbreviated title. (April 2010)|
- The Secret Life of Paintings - Richard Foster & Pamela Tudor-Craig ISBN 0-85115-439-5
- ibid page 60
- ibid p.60
- The Correspondence of Erasmus Vol 2, 1501-1514, epistle 205
- The Secret Life of Paintings ISBN 0-85115-439-5 Richard Foster & Pamela Tudor-Craig
- Gert von der Osten Painting and Sculpture in the Netherlands 1500-1600
- The Secret Life of Paintings Foster/Tudor-Craig p.68
- The Secret Life of Paintings Foster/Tudor-Craig
- The Secret Life of Painting chapter 5 Foster/Tudor-Craig p.71
See also Circles of Thorns by Justin Lewis-Anthony