Lent 21

Two men in their shirts and pants, with one, possibly both, also wearing a waistcoat. Their legs are bare. A rope goes around the older man’s shoulders, and they are led by two guards – one with a helmet, another with a spear. We cannot see the arms of the two prisoners – maybe their hands are tied behind their backs. One has grey hair and a grey beard, another brown hair and a short, straggly beard. We are back with the two thieves, being led to their deaths, and yet, they do not look the same. At some point, between approaching the city gate and arriving at the green hill without the city wall someone has thought to find them something more to wear. Maybe it was decided, before they even left town, that it wouldn’t do to have thieves wandering around in just their pants. Humiliation is one thing, but a shred of decency for the sake of the onlookers might not go amiss. Not only that, though – there has been time for the older thief’s hair to grow, and, conversely, for the younger one to get a haircut, darken his hair, and grow a beard, however straggly. Check back to Lent 19 if you want to be sure. They have also swapped sides, and changed guards, but neither of those things are problematic.

How are we to account for these differences? We already know that this is a continuous narrative – a painting in which the same characters appear more than once, rather like a medieval comic strip – as we have already seen both Jesus and Judas twice (Jesus in Lent 10 and Lent 15, and Judas in Lent 11 – alive – and Lent 13 – dead). But a continuous narrative will only work if the characters look the same – or if there is no chance of mistaking their identity. This image falls into the latter category: there are no other malefactors in the story at this point, so they must be the two thieves. Nevertheless, it would have been easy enough to make them look the same. My suspicion (and I have already mentioned, though I don’t remember when, that I had one) is that the artist had a very loosely organised workshop, and got his (or her) assistants to paint the figures in the background – but without making sure that they consulted one another. If I’m right, then he (or she) gave them a remarkably free rein – we will see more examples later on, and it might explain why Judas was dressed as Jesus (Lent 11). A simple misunderstanding…

Whoever painted these figures was undoubtedly highly skilled – look at the carefully placed highlights which give perfect definition to the shape of the helmets, and the remarkable translucent, chiffon-like overshirt of the guard at the back. Or am I giving the artist/assistant undue credit? Maybe this translucence reveals another pentimento. That’s probably more likely, on reflection. Still, I like the careful delineation of the saddle on the white horse in the foreground of the detail, and the flecks of paint that create the texture of the hair of the guard in dull blue with his back to us.

The two thieves are followed by a brown horse, with a rider who is wearing a very jaunty hat, which I think we will see again. We will certainly see a hat of the same model, but as yet I can’t decide whether it is meant to be the same rider, especially as we now know that characters might change their clothes. He looks down and gestures, and it is a gesture that is all too familiar. If I didn’t know better I would suggest that he is checking his phone, but, as mobiles hadn’t been invented back then, his hand is empty. Given that I am clearly talking nonsense – as so often before – I’m afraid I don’t know what that gesture means, but it could be a character trait. The next man we will see with the same hat does something similar. The brown horse is braying in the ear of the older thief. I know, donkeys bray, but that’s what it looks like this horse is doing. I think even the animals don’t respect these men. Who can blame them? Even with their shirts on they look no more respectable than they did the last time we saw them. Who knows what they’ll be wearing next…

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

9 thoughts on “Lent 21

  1. Halleluia, got it! This has been a wonderful exercise in close observation and the mystery was fascinating. I’m intrigued at the thief’s ‘pouch’ whereas Christ has a flowing loincloth. Also the means of crucifixion are slightly different albeit on the cross?

    Thanks Richard, am really enjoying this..

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  2. As always, the details are fascinating. The well-dressed rider on the brown horse balancing his crossbow (left hand on the reins, right hand gesturing “over there” or “here they are” with an open hand, the crossbow just resting in his lap). The short-haired guard with a spear, wearing sandals with something (hose? gaiter? puttee?) tied to just one leg. The various types of bucket-like helmet, with neck guard and brim, and the rider on the white horse appears to have a hinged visor. And the support structure at the rear of his saddle – is that the cantle? – presumably giving the rider some stability when thrusting with his lance.

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  3. Looking more closely it could be the rider on the horse (minus his mobile!) is giving some instruction to the guard in blue with his back to us. This guy also has his right leg covered with some protection but not his left leg – is this someone we saw earlier? I noticed too the older thief still has the rope round his neck but not the younger one, curious. Thanks Richard am enjoying the detective work.

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    1. It’s weird, that leg covering, isn’t it? It’s tied on, like some sort of improvised protection for the right leg alone. We certainly haven’t seen anything like it before, though. I assume most of the rope is behind the two thieves, where we can’t see it.

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  4. The central figure of the guard with his back to us may be saying something, as the prisoner is looking at him quizzically. The rider with the jaunty hat may be questioning the guard through his covid type mask, as he appears to be looking back at him, forming a triangle. The gesture at first glance, looks like the rider is checking his pocket watch suspended round his neck, like Alice’s white rabbit!!
    Although the guard has only one boot his belt is carefully decorated and his bare arms are very muscular

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