The Road to Calvary, ca. 1535
Handbook EntryThis painting by the Antwerp artist Herri Met de Bles amplifies one scene of the Passion, the culmination of Christ’s earthly life. After his betrayal, trial, and conviction, Jesus must carry his cross to Calvary, the place of the Crucifixion. Embedded in a crowd of ordinary-seeming people in a vast landscape, he is small — reminding the viewer of the miracle of his profound humility — but also prominent, as his figure is juxtaposed with a tree. Crouching beneath the weight of the cross, Christ silently exhorts the spectator, evoking the words of the Gospels, "He that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me." The painting is in the "world landscape" tradition, invented by Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480–before 1524), which gathers many varieties of the earth’s topography into a single, fantastical view. Christ’s journey unfolds against a northern European vista seen from a high viewpoint. The movement of figures through the scene recalls Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when children decorated his path with palm branches; now they watch their savior’s humiliating journey. The man behind Christ is Simon the Cyrene, who helped carry the cross; as one of the few redemptive figures in the drama, he exemplifies the extraordinary nature of small acts of compassion. The onlooker bearing a backpack filled with birds may symbolize the ensnarement of sinful human souls; or perhaps the birds and the hunter, simple characters who cannot hope to penetrate the mystery of Christ’s sacrifice, are reminders of the life cycle. Herri Met de Bles left few traces in history. His paintings are not signed, and his precise dates of birth and death are unknown, as is his true name (the biographer Karel van Mander claimed the nickname referred to a white patch or blaze of hair on his forehead). In Italy, he was known as "La Civetta" (the Little Owl) for the owls in his paintings, which often hide among caves or trees; here, one watches us from a rock.
Gallery LabelChrist’s path to Calvary was a stage of the Passion emphasized by Northern artists, who showed him suffering at the hands of tormenters accompanying him to the site of the Crucifixion. Herri met de Bles instead shows the moment when Simon the Cyrene temporarily alleviates his suffering by helping him carry the cross, demonstrating the redemptive value of following and imitating Christ. Locating this scene within a vast landscape replete with eye-catching details requires the viewer’s devoted attention, a strategy the artist employs perhaps to moralize the act of looking. The compositional scheme is typical of the Antwerp “world landscape” painting tradition conceived by Joachim Patinir, and culminating in the work of Pieter Brueghel. The first European landscapes since antiquity, they encompassed a staggeringly diverse description of the earth’s topography and often included a variety of cityscapes as well. The impressive scope of this panorama reminds audiences of the universal implications of Christ’s sacrifice.
It moves me deeply that as Jesus makes his torturous journey to Calvary, his cross is taken up by someone else—someone who chooses to take on the suffering, to relieve for some moments the one who walks toward his own execution. How might we each carry the burden of those who, today, flee for their lives? What does compassion require of us?
Alison L. Boden, Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel
This painting is forceful in pointing at people. In its foreground, arrayed along a ruddy ribbon of roadway, one sees people walking, looking, and riding on horseback. Some of them are staring at Jesus, who is set off in the middle right foreground by the merest broken nimbus of white. Some of them are beating Jesus, who is bent over after his first fall, as Simon of Cyrene reaches to help shoulder the cross. As we deliberate upon that scene, we realize that Golgotha looms to the left of the procession, a fantastic corkscrew-like mountain, oddly neither near nor far, that marks the end of this spectacle.
From the imagined elaboration of a walled and turreted Jerusalem stride more people, and they join the journey to Golgotha by leaving the city through two round frames made of massive arches. Even as the spiraling crowd of people in the middle of the picture urges us to look toward the architectonic intricacy of the gray stones of Jerusalem, with the whitish wash of sky above it flecked with flocks of circling birds, we are drawn into the darker colors of foregrounded vignettes—a boy enticing his dog with a hoop, the rounded rump of a parti-colored horse moving forward under its richly costumed rider, a chubby youngster climbing a splintered tree to join his friends who are already perched above the roadway, the detachment of mounted soldiers riding from right to left with sharp verticals of spears marking each one, a man hunched in the left near foreground with a cage full of birds on his back, and a Moor to the right clad in red-yellow pants and shiny silken shirt.
Perhaps in the role of the gathering audience at a Passion play or just the jostle of the greater human parade, we viewers see that almost no one is looking at the suffering man poised between momentary fatigue and certain death against a too-tall scraggle of tree that cuts the painting’s foreground vertically. For a moment, the intricate panorama of this grand Flemish “world landscape” arrests us by its very detail everywhere one looks—from the gleaming frogs’ eyes in the foregrounded pool to the minute depiction of the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, in the main square within the walled city. And the painter himself is there, too: Herri’s signature owl—for we know more about his nicknames, il Civetta (the owl), as he was known in Italy, and met de bles (with the white forelock), than we do about his life—rests on the rocks of the grotto, and stares at something outside the painting’s frame. A whole history of different temporalities is folded within this large rectangle as it points toward the pathos of the narrative. Yet the eye goes again and again to the human in the painting’s lower third.
For me, Herri’s gloriously detailed and intimate landscape suggests a lesson about the human migrations of our present: What makes us stop and look? What makes us stop and care?
Sarah Anderson, Lecturer, English
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