More onlookers today, but rather than sitting (or kneeling) outside the action, they play a greater part in the narrative. Some of them are those most responsible for Christ’s fate, others are merely those who make it happen, and most of them have appeared before. In the foreground is a man who I hope is the most recognisable. Seated upon a white horse, wearing a deep pink robe, with a green, patterned collar or cape is a man holding a long, slim staff. This is, of course, Pontius Pilate, just as we saw him outside his palace (Lent 14), and more or less as we saw him on the Via Crucis (Lent 22) – although in greater detail now, as he is far closer to us than before. He still wears the broad, dark hat, wrapped in a scarf, with the feather projecting straight upwards, and holds the long, slim staff. We can also see that his green cape is embroidered all over with diamonds, and the gold trims are sewn with pearls (and if you can’t see this here, you will, in the detail further down). Over Pilate’s shoulder we see the two men who were riding behind him, one with a broad-brimmed red hat, another with a smaller, ‘pill-box’ hat (although the last time we saw it, it was purple – indeed, his robes still are) and a high, plush, white, wrap-around collar. These two men lean in to each other, the one at the back resting his left hand on the other’s shoulder as a sign of complicity. The gesture and look of his companion makes me think that their scheme has come to fruition. They are the high priests, and they are ‘mocking him‘ as we shall see.
To the left of the group is a man on a brown horse (I know, you can hardly see it here) who makes a rhetorical gesture with his left hand, while looking to our right. He sports a slim, peaked hat, tied on with a band, a feather projecting at a sharp angle backwards. This is the man I mentioned in Lent 21 as having the same make of hat as someone in that detail: I wonder if they were meant to be the same man? Both are on brown horses, but the earlier equivalent had a crossbow: I can’t see that here. The earlier version was in a far more workaday grey outfit with a shield slung round his back – although he did make a similar rhetorical gesture. I can’t be sure if they are the same – and actually, in the end it doesn’t matter.
At the top right there are two guards. I think the one in the yellow turban may be new, but I think the other is the snub-nosed man with full silver-grey sleeves we first saw going away from us in Lent 16, only to see his red headdress with the front knot at the bottom of Lent 19, which had changed to yellow by Lent 22. One of the joys of this painting is that it becomes a puzzle to try and decipher, but I suspect that there is no solution. At least we know the lead players, even if the supporting cast are not so clear. But think about it: when you watch a film, how many of the people in the background do you actually identify or associate with? It is almost as if the artist’s workshop is using a limited number of players to fill out the crowd, using set types, but dressing them differently to make us think they are different people. There is also another man I think is new at the front left, with a red top and ‘hot pants’ (and we know what we think about them), boots but no hose, and a blue cape with bells on. He leans back, holding something in his right hand, as if he is about to beat one of the horses, a violent act which matches the guilt of this gathered assembly.
Why are these people here? Well, this is what it says in Matthew 27:39-43,
And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.
Mark and Luke say much the same, although the essence is encapsulated in one verse in Luke 23:35,
And the people stood beholding. And the rulers also with them derided him, saying, He saved others; let him save himself, if he be Christ, the chosen of God.
These are ‘the rulers‘, deriding, and, effectively, representatives of ‘the people‘ – although we shall see more of them in the coming days. We shall also see that John’s slightly different account is also relevant.
Pilate sits on his horse facing to our left, which suggests that he might be balancing the donor, who is kneeling and looking to our right on the other side of the painting. The two guards at the back look up and to our left. This tells us that they are all on the right of the painting, and to our right of the cross (hardly a ‘spoiler’ by now). To put it another way, they are at Jesus’s left hand. As in paintings of the Last Judgement (see, for example, Day 38 – Enrico Scrovegni) they are on the side of the damned. The donor was, therefore, to our left, or at Christ’s right hand: he is destined for Heaven. Tomorrow we will see the sort of company he keeps.