107 – Jesus in Custody

Giotto, Christ before Caiaphas and The Mocking of Christ, c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

OK – so – Scrovegni Monday. Apologies… However, I will cover two pictures today – I will, I will, I will… They are the scenes which lead directly up to the Crucifixion of Christ, and as such form a cliff-hanger in the chapel: what will happen next? Obviously, we know, because we know the story and we’ve seen the pictures, but in the chapel itself it is worth point out that this focus on the bad deeds leads us directly to the depiction of heaven at the end wall – without Christ’s sacrifice, it says, there is no hope of getting there.

In both cases we are in an enclosed room. Like Christ among the Doctors, on the opposite wall (Picture Of The Day 87 – you may remember that I put it on the wrong wall for a week, apologies again…), the room itself takes up most of the picture – the cutaway walls form a double frame to the left and right, leaving a slice of blue sky at the top – despite the fact that it is after sunset, as it was for the Arrest of Christ last week (106). This is acknowledged in two different ways in these two pictures. On the left, Christ before Caiaphas, the servant in brown (third from the right) holds a flaming torch – this was painted a secco in its entirety. Although the torchbearer himself is solid and clear, the torch he is holding appears to have worn away, and the flame is, even for a flame, rather immaterial. However, it does light up the back wall of the room, leaving the ghostly flame slightly darker than the wall, the pool of light gradually darkening to the sides. The shutters of the windows are closed, as they might well be at night, although what are apparently shutters on the left wall are open. However, this is probably the door through which people have entered.  In The Mocking of Christ by contrast, there are no shutters – just bars across the windows (this is, after all, some form of prison) – and we can see the dark night sky through them, even though, at the top of the painting, we see the normal daylight blue. Giotto does everything to maintain unity within the chapel as a whole – we see it all by daylight, after all, even if the settings tells us that some scenes take place at night. Whereas in the first image everyone is comfortably within the room, and safely contained, in the second some people are in front of the slim columns which mark the end of the walls. The action has been pushed forward, making it more intense, and more immediate.

The cycle moves rapidly from the Last Supper and the Washing of the Feet (103 and 105) via The Arrest (106) to Christ before Caiaphas, and several scenes are omitted, as I have mentioned before. The Agony in the Garden is just one of these. John’s Gospel mentions that Jesus is taken from one authority figure to another. The first is Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, and then Annas ‘sent him bound unto Caiaphas’. From thence Jesus was taken to the ‘hall of judgement’, which is where he encounters Pilate. The meeting with Caiaphas is the only one of the three which is represented: Giotto is presumably abbreviating the story to fit this complex part of the narrative into one ‘chapter’, i.e. just one wall of the chapel. However, it is worthwhile remembering the other episodes: so much took place between Thursday night and Friday morning. Having said that, Giotto appears to be combining the first two meetings into one picture. The two priests seated on the right hand side could easily be Caiaphas, in green, and his father-in-law Annas, seated beside him in red. I would take the longer hair and beard as a sign of greater age, for one thing. Also, the figure on the right can be identified as Caiaphas, because of his action, tearing at his clothes. Matthew 26:65 and Mark 14:63 both mention that the High Priest ‘rent his clothes’ in his anger at Jesus’s perceived blasphemy. Although Giotto has him do this without much energy – his elbows are neatly tucked in – the fabric has parted and gapes wide, revealing a slightly hollow chest and just a hint of paunch. Jesus’s hands are bound, as John says they were when Annas sent him to Caiaphas, but the soldier in red and gold has raised his right hand to hit him. This comes from John 18:22, ‘one of the officers which stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand’ – and this happens before he is sent over to Caiaphas. Jesus looks out – though not directly towards us. He gazes off to our right, deep in thought, contemplating what is to come. This allows us to see his face clearly, perfectly framed by the circular halo as it is, and bears witness to his long-suffering patience, calmly enduring all of these sacrifices for the salvation of mankind.

The image of The Mocking of Christ is a similar combination of different ideas. Given that the accounts in the four gospels are sufficiently varied, this almost always happens. There are actually two points in the narrative when Jesus is mocked. According to the synoptic gospels, on the Thursday evening, he is blindfolded, then beaten and spat at. The following morning, he is taken to Pilate – John’s gospel also suggests that he is taken to Pilate early on Good Friday. There is then a second ‘mocking’, when Jesus is dressed as a king, and taunted. Matthew suggests he was dressed in scarlet, whereas Mark and John both go for purple, but little should be read into this. Both colours denote royalty, after all, and, in any case, the term ‘purple’ was not fully defined for centuries. Luke, on the other hand, says that Jesus was dressed in ‘a gorgeous robe’, and this is the option Giotto chooses. He makes it white, with an elaborate gold pattern, combining a sense of royalty with one of purity. The crown of thorns is thrust onto his head, and he is given a reed as a sceptre, which they then take to beat him with. Giotto shows some of them pulling his hair, and preparing to hit him, while another kneels in mock homage.

Pilate himself is curiously side-lined in this cycle. He is there though – standing on the right of the scene, dressed from head to foot in red, a regal band around his head, not unlike the crown of thorns in appearance. He gestures towards Jesus, as do members of the priesthood: a debate is clearly taking place about Christ’s future. This could easily be an illustration of Luke 23:4-5:

Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.

Yet more elements of the biblical narrative are missed out – there is no flagellation, no debate over the freeing of Barabbas, and Herod doesn’t even seem to get a look in (however, see below…). Jesus’s fate is sealed though, and we know what is to come. It is not just that Giotto feels free to edit at will, he is obliged to do so: there is no more space on the wall.

Having completed this penultimate chapter, I shall stop and think about the placement of these scenes in relationship to those above, as I asked you to two weeks ago. Whereas for the first two pairs, I think the relationship is one of similarity, for the remaining three, we are dealing with opposition. In the first pairing, the Nativity is above the Last Supper, with Jesus at the far left of each, closest to the altar of the chapel: he is seen in relationship to the bread of the Mass, the Body of Christ. In the second pairing, the eldest Magus kneels to Jesus, whereas below it is Jesus who kneels to Peter. Although this reads like an opposition, it still speaks of essential good – the recognition of Christ as King, and the recognition Jesus himself suggests we award one other.

However, things change in the last three pairings – although I should make clear that I am hypothesising here. It could be that the placement of the stories occurs through necessity, although it might help to explain which of the various elements of the narrative were chosen for the lower scenes. Above the Arrest of Christ is the Presentation in the Temple. In the earlier story Jesus is given, in the later one, he is taken. Both involve identification – the High Priest recognises Jesus as the Messiah, whereas Judas betrays him as Judea’s ‘most wanted’. In the next pairing the Flight into Egypt is above Christ before Caiaphas. The upper story is one of escape, while the lower focuses on Jesus’s captivity. And finally, the Massacre of the Innocents is paired with the Mocking of Christ. The upper scene is unusual in the narrative of the Childhood of Christ, as it is the only one in that chapter in which Jesus himself does not appear. The Innocents suffer and die, thus saving Jesus: it was widely believed that, as a result, their souls went straight to Heaven. The lower scene is another violent one, with the cruelty finally directed towards Jesus – the delay in his death is finally coming to an end. Both stories should include ‘King Herod’ – although, historically speaking, this is not the same character. To be honest, it is quite difficult to pin down the Herods. Herod the Great, who ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, married at least ten times and among his descendants were three sons, a grandson and a great grandson, all of whom were called Herod. Two of the sons married a woman called Herodias, which doesn’t help. It was one of these last two, Herod Antipas, the older half-brother and second husband of Herodias, who ordered the death of John the Baptist. He also wanted Jesus killed, some 33 years after his father had failed to achieve the same end. In the upper scene Herod the Great points down from his balcony, ordering the massacre (a common feature in the iconography of this story, even though he would have been nowhere near Bethlehem at the time). He appears in profile, looking down to the right, wearing a white robe and a red cloak. Notice how, in the lower scene, over Pilate’s outstretched arm, is a man with a similar profile, similarly dressed. If Herod Junior (i.e. Herod Antipas) is included in this scene, this must be him. This would mean that Herod Senior is effectively pointing to his son. However, as I say, these connections could be coincidental. If you can see any other links, though, please do let me know – I’d love to know more! Next week – or for that matter, later this week – we shall start the final chapter.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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