In the words of comedian, actor and writer Arabella Weir, ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ Not only does this man bend over to give us a chance to contemplate an answer, but he also turns round to look us in the eye – indeed, he is, I suspect, one of the very few people in the painting who do look at us, aware of our presence, thus inviting our participation in the events depicted. His gaze connects us to the painting, while the plank, or beam, which he is holding with his left hand leads our eye in further, as we saw in Lent 9. We now know, of course, that this plank, or beam, is part of the cross. His right hand reaches down, arm fully stretched, to pick up his auger (not his pick), which he will use to make guide holes at the bottom and on both arms of the cross, so that later it will be easier to drive in nails. There are other paintings where you can see this in action. The boy with the improbable hat (Lent 7) is pointing to the auger, acknowledging its relevance, and also helping to structure the painting: his gesture parallels the length of the beam, and helps to keep our eye looking into the painting, and to the right, the direction that Jesus will soon travel on his way to Calvary.
There is something comical about bottoms, particularly when they are displayed so brazenly. They imply a sense of vulnerability, I think, especially when your hose is down. We could see, even in the small detail in Lent 9, that the left leg had collapsed. Someone suggested that the hose looks almost more like thigh-length boots – and it does. But this shouldn’t be a surprise: our mistake is to confuse ‘hose’ with ‘tights’ – thin, almost evanescent – but hose was intended to fully clad the legs – not only to cover them, but to keep them warm. Before lycra, and even before elastic, they could be tied up with garters, but were often attached to the bottom of the doublet with laces – rather like shoe laces, with pointed metal caps (‘aglets’) to stop them fraying. Perhaps for that reason they were called ‘points’. When Malvolio decides to dress precisely how he believes, in error, that Olivia wants him to, in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, he says he will be ‘point-devise the very man’ – he means that he will be ideally dressed and perfectly presented. Not this man here: no points, so his hose has fallen down. It reminds me of the Whitehall farces – and no, I am not referring to contemporary politics, and no, I am not old enough to have seen any of them. But I know that, in these ‘classic’ comedies at the Whitehall theatre in the 50s and 60s, usually starring Brian Rix, there was usually a point where the hapless hero’s trousers would fall down, and it would always get a laugh. We are meant to laugh at this man – he is our comic chorus, like the Porter in the ‘Scottish Play’ or the Gravedigger in Hamlet. He is there to warm us up, to grab our attention, to get our emotions moving, to lower our guard – because later we should weep.
And it’s not just the bottom. He shares something in common with the right-hand sculpture adorning the palace which we saw in Lent 5, about which I said, ‘his buttocks are turned towards us… and… there is more than a hint of testicle’. Fine. Dress how you like. But don’t stand astride a plank. Or beam. If the man at the other end lifts it up much higher, there will be a nasty accident. This is part of the comedy, and it is also one of the ways in which the cruelty of these men is undermined – they are ugly, low and laughable. However, hardly anyone is paying attention to him – apart from us, perhaps. A child at the bottom of the Scala Santa looks up towards Jesus and waves. He really shouldn’t be here, as he has wandered out of another image, but seems to be morbidly interested in Christ’s suffering: as the Dutch used to say in the 17th Century (and maybe they still do), ‘Soo voer gesongen, soo na gepepen’ – ‘As the old sing, so the young pipe’. He’s been given a bad example.
Our artist is quoting from a print of The Flagellation by Dutch painter and printmaker Lucas van Leyden, probably as the design for a small stained glass panel, a vignette that would sit in the middle of a plain glass window. It was part of a series now known as The Circular Passion, and is dated 1509. This tells us something important: our painting must date from 1509 at the very earliest… but probably later.