The Mocking of Christ, 1628–30
Handbook EntryVan Dyck worked with Rubens in Antwerp and then visited Italy and France. He painted this moving devotional picture after his return to Antwerp. It is his response to the works of Titian, the sixteenth-century Venetian master who had painted several deeply felt evocations of Christ being presented by Pontius Pilate to the people in the scene called Ecce Homo (Behold the Man). Van Dyck created a very close parallel in his Ecce Homo (Barber Art Institute, University of Birmingham, England). The Princeton painting offers a more complex narrative, showing the torturers who mock the suffering Christ, crowning him with thorns and giving him a reed as a scepter; his noble countenance shines through the sordid surroundings. He lowers his gaze to evade the eyes of his tormentors, but the viewer who stands close to the painting sees his eyes filled with pain and compassion for errant and sinful humankind. The Mocking of Christ was perhaps the Museum’s major old master painting created for a connoisseur’s gallery, yet it draws on traditions of Christian devotional art. Fifteenth-century artists, especially Rogier van der Weyden, had devised a formula for showing a close-up view of a holy figure or narrative scene, as here, in which the viewer could feel a sense of participation. The episode is distilled to include only the major actors. Christ is shown at a moment of inner torment, when he has been betrayed, arrested, brought before Pilate, and repudiated by the people. He wears the crown of thorns, and as his blood is about to be shed in the flagellation, he is mocked as "King of the Jews." Van Dyck contrasts the man presenting the reed (an African, to make him more fierce) with the soldier behind him. This is surely the centurion, mentioned in the biblical account, who pierced Jesus’ side when he was on the cross and recognized him as the Son of God. He seems curious, as he leans forward for a better view; the lance in his hand was to become one of the major relics of Catholicism, preserved at St. Peter’s in Rome. Christ’s countenance is based on another holy relic at St. Peter’s: Saint Veronica’s veil, which was imprinted with Christ’s features when Veronica wiped his brow as he struggled under the weight of the cross on the road to Calvary. Like the lance, it is housed in one of the four piers of the dome at the crossing of St. Peter’s, an area of the basilica that underwent a campaign of renovation and enhancement by Gian Lorenzo Bernini beginning in 1629. The veil was widely known and revered thanks to reproductions, such as a print by Albrecht Dürer, so its appearance would have been instantly recognizable. The references to two of the sacred relics situate Van Dyck’s image within the iconographic realm of the Counter-Reformation Church Triumphant. They point to Rome as the center of Catholicism and to the relics as tangible proof the church was founded by Christ and the apostles (the other relics are the fragment of the cross found in Jerusalem by Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, and the head of the apostle Andrew). It was the genius of Van Dyck to weave these references into a narrative scene while retaining the focus on the suffering figure of Christ, his body as yet unmarked by the signs of the Passion, but about to undergo the physical agony that would redeem humankind. Paradoxically, this luxury possession, which belonged to a powerful grandee of the time, incorporates themes from devotional readings like The Imitation of Christ, enjoining the Christian to follow humbly in the footsteps of the Savior.
The most brilliant of Peter Paul Rubens’s assistants, Van Dyck left Antwerp to pursue his career in London and Genoa. By the time he returned—and painted this work for an unknown patron—he had both absorbed the lessons of Rubens and of the great Venetian master Titian and developed his own delicate sensibility. Offering a complex narrative, this painting shows the torturers who mock the suffering Christ, crowning him with thorns and giving him a reed as a scepter. The depiction of one of Christ’s tormentors as a black man draws on an iconographic lineage that, in the Middle Ages, depicted black executioners as evil incarnate. This figure, however, reflects a more nuanced treatment that was seen in subsequent eras, as racial attitudes evolved. The figure is sensitively rendered from life, with a treatment of expression and gesture that is perhaps more suggestive of ambivalence than brutality.
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An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)