We’ve seen enough of the painting now to start meeting people again, and to put them into context – the woman weeping, and the improbable hat of the child next to her (Lent 7) can be seen in the bottom right – and now we know why she is weeping. Whoever she is – and there really is no way of knowing, I think, apart from being one of the many women who followed Jesus – it is now obvious that it is his arrest and torture which are upsetting her, not to mention his inevitable death: her head is right next to the cross, after all. The man we saw in the act of derision (Lent 8) was clearly deriding Jesus. Someone astutely commented that that detail reminded them of ‘an Ecce Homo scene’ (I’m sorry, I don’t have a name, only a group…), and they were more-or-less right. Ecce Homo means ‘behold the man’, words spoken by Pontius Pilate, as related in the Gospel of John, 19:5,
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
It is at this point, according to John, that the chief priests and officers call for Christ’s crucifixion, but Pilate claims to ‘find no fault in him’. Then the people also call for him to be crucified. Pilate tries every way possible to have him released – speaking again to Jesus, arguing with the priests, and confronting the public, but to no avail. Eventually he submits, and, in the words of John 19:16-17,
Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. And he bearing his cross went forth…
And this is the precise moment we see – a stage further on from the Ecce Homo, but with the same rabble, who have been roused to the heights of passion, anger, derision: you may remember that yesterday I mentioned that ‘the chief priests moved the people’ (Mark 15:11) – i.e. they had turned them against Jesus. There are, at least, a few good people moved to tears amongst the crowd. We also read yesterday how Mark told us ‘they put his own clothes on him’ (Mark 15:20) before taking him away, which is why he no longer wears the ‘purple’ mentioned by John, above, and also by Mark. In today’s detail he is being led down some steps to pick up the cross.
These are not just any steps, as it happens, they have an important place in church history. It is widely believed that St Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and brought back many relics. One of the things she somehow acquired and had shipped back to Rome was an entire staircase, made up of steps which were supposed to lead to the Praetorium, the very steps up which Jesus walked to face Pilate, and the ones he is about to be led down now. The originals look rather different.
Still a vital pilgrimage destination, since the 18th Century the Scala Santa – or ‘Holy Staircase’ – has been clad in wood, and for much longer than that it has only been climbed on your knees. I’ve done it three or four times… I won’t go into its historical authenticity, but, as one website I’ve just seen suggests, ‘believers need no further proof and sceptics may never have enough proof’. I will go as far as to say I’m with the sceptics – and archaeologists. Nevertheless, this is what the steps in our painting represent. One of yesterday’s unexplained gestures now makes sense: the guard we saw on the left had unaccountably grabbed hold of Jesus’s robe. It turns out he was holding it up so that Jesus wouldn’t trip over while going down the steps. Whether this was an act of kindness, or simply a practical expedient, I shall leave you to decide.
Another detail I love here: the guards are clearly well rewarded. I’ve already commented on their elaborate clothing, but look at the purse of the man holding the rope. We see another pentimento, and in this case it tells us that the purse was originally smaller. It seems that, after taking on this job, he needed a bigger one, which was painted over the first. The rope shows us, subtly, the direction of travel – down to the right – and then the cross takes over: in a couple of days we will head off from the top right of this detail – the cross points the way. The man holding it up has the typical grimace, and ugly distortions of form, seen throughout this rabble. It is not the ugliness of everyday life, as someone understandably asked me yesterday, but an expression of the inner character of these people. The idea – now rejected, thank goodness – was that the exterior appearance reflected the interior qualities. We see it again with the man at the very top right. He wears the finest clothes – the decorative chain mail around his collar appears like sewn pearls, and the silvery sleeve is tailored to an elegant fullness – and yet he has a ridiculous snub nose: the perceived ‘ugliness’ of his facial features would reflect the supposed ugliness of his mindset. He does, however, know which way we are going, and in a couple of days we shall follow his lead.