Man of Sorrows (Geertgen tot Sint Jans)

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Man of Sorrows, Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht. 25cm x 24cm

Man of Sorrows is a small oil on wood Early Netherlandish painting completed c. 1485-1495, generally attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans.


The painting shows Christ on Calvary carrying a wooden cross, his knees buckling from its weight.[1] He wears the Crown of Thorns; its spikes spill blood across his face. His arms are heavily lacerated by what appear to be whip marks, and he weakly raises his right hand to display the deep wound to his side, where according to scripture, he was pierced by a lance after his death on the cross. Most startlingly, he stands in his own tomb, a stone sarcophagus.[2] His eyes stare directly at the viewer, a device identified by Panofsky as referring to the biblical text "Behold what I have suffered for you; what have you suffered for me",[3] earlier identified by art historian, Alois Riegl as evoking an "external unity" where Christ's gaze becomes one with the viewer's world.[4] More directly Wouter Slob writes that Christ's expression "confronts the contemporary viewer with the consequences of his sinning; the blood, splashing from the panel, flows because of his guilt."[5]

To Christ's left Mary Magdalene kneels praying, her arms resting on the sarcophagus, her eyes downcast, her plaintive expression a study of grief. At the foot of the cross, Jesus' mother, Mary, laments with her arms folded, large drops of tears pouring down her face.[6] She is supported by John the Evangelist with only his head and hands visible, wiping his tears with the back of his hand.[2][7] Angels dressed in white robes, their eyes swollen with tears, carry the remaining Arma Christi, including the lance, Holy Sponge and the three nails from the cross.[6]


The Lamentation of Christ, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c 1484.

Given the remnants of hinges on its frame, the work probably formed the left hand side of a diptych of which the opposite panel is now lost, possibly broken apart during the 18th century when composite works of this era, superseded by Mannerism were out of fashion and were broken down to be sold as individual genre pieces. Man of Sorrows is thought to have been created as part of a series of small paintings for the Haarlem Commandery of the Knights of St John, a group of works that explore a range of human emotions.[6] The panel has been described as "one of the most Early Netherlandish art" and is usually considered as a highly emotive and sorrowful work, especially in its description of Christ's pitiful, almost defeated expression and blood-run face.[8] Nothing is known about the lost right hand panel; it may have contained another religious scene or a donor portrait.[2]

Erwin Panofsky in 1927 placed the panel in the tradition of iconic devotional depictions (andachtsbilder) of the "Man of Sorrows". He noted especially its focus on the sacrificial aspect of The Passion, and the its unflinching, yet emotive depiction of physical suffering.[9] In some respects the work is unsophisticated; it is composed mainly from simplified geometric forms, while there is not much differentiation in the oval, idealised faces of the female figures. The clothes of any of the figures are not especially detailed; their volume and texture only suggested by the heavy folds.[1] However, it is highly regarded for its complex and innovative composition, with many of the elements presented at oblique angles. It is very tightly cropped, for the era it was produced, cutting off the Magdalene and Evangelist would have been considered daring.[2]

The work is attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans mainly for its typically simplified geometric shapes, and similarity to his The Lamentation of Christ; a painting in which the faces and expressions of Mary and John bear striking similarity to the present work. The attribution was accepted by both Friedländer and Panofsky. Panofsky was enthusiastic about the panel, but Friedländer did not hold it in high regard. He praised the description of the Virgin, especially her face and hands, and described the depiction of the Magdalene as "realistic...with such carefully observed shadows" and "among the masters best work". However he found the figure of Christ to be "traditional", and wrote that the "absence of spatial elaboration overall is felt to be all the more vexing". Overall the image, he believed, lacked depth of field and compositional balance.[10] Panofsky, although he generally admired Friedländer's analysis, disagreed strongly, and in 1927 in a general treatise on Netherlandish depictions of the "Man of Sorrows" wrote, "As, however, all the seemingly haphazard composition lines lead with compelling force to the face of the Saviour, which, lifted out of the image, focuses its large, tearful eye on us, the sum of all the sorrows which he suffers, and all of the mourning that is suffered for him, now appears to besiege us."[4]


  1. ^ a b Ridderbos et al, 152
  2. ^ a b c d Ridderbos et al, 150
  3. ^ Panofsky, 124
  4. ^ a b Ridderbos et al, 153
  5. ^ Slob, Wouter. "Dialogical Rhetoric: An Essay on Truth and Normativity After Postmodernism". Springer, 2002. 40. ISBN 1-4020-0909-7
  6. ^ a b c Smith, 129
  7. ^ A motif borrowed from Robert Campin's Entombment
  8. ^ Ridderbos et al, 148
  9. ^ Ridderbos et al, 248
  10. ^ Friedländer, 23