I try to be optimistic, and I think today’s detail is. To the left, we can just see St John, supporting the Virgin’s arm, a detail we saw in full yesterday. On the right we see the uncouth man in his red top and hot pants, bells on the hem of his blue cape, about to strike one of the horses, who we saw in Lent 26. So, with The Good on our left and The Bad on our right, we must be in the middle, at the foot of the cross – maybe just to the left of centre, as the figure kneeling here is looking up to our right.
There are bones on the floor. Is that because this is a place of execution? Or is it, simply, because the bible mentions bones? Matthew, Mark and John give the place where this happened the same name, although Luke does not. This is what John 19:17 says – I quoted the first half of the verse some time back:
And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha.
So there are bones because this is ‘the place of a skull.’ Luke uses the term ‘Calvary’ – or at least, in the King James Version he does. But then, that is derived from the Latin for skull – or, at least, for Cranium. So all four mention a skull – although oddly there isn’t one here. I can see a bit of a femur, maybe, and a stone that I want to look like an animal’s skull – but I don’t think it is. Legend has it that the skull after which Golgotha was named belonged to Adam, and that, as part of the Divine Plan, Jesus was Crucified in exactly the same spot as the place where Adam had been buried many centuries before. But that’s another story.
The kneeling figure must be another of the ‘many women… which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him’ (Matthew 27:55), some of whom were present in Lent 27. She is definitely a woman ‘of substance’ – just look at her clothes. She wears a full-length, sleeveless, green overdress, lined with fur, over a full-sleeved, cloth-of-gold gown. The belt looks like solid gold, although it must be woven in some way, with gold medallions from which are hanging yet more gold ornaments. She has a large black hood with a gold tassel and its own relatively small cape, and a white headdress. We can hardly see any of her face, as she kneels intently looking up to the cross, her hands clasped in prayer very close to her chin. I would like to think that this is one of the ‘certain women… which ministered unto [Jesus] of their substance’ mentioned by Luke (8:2-3). If we saw Joanna in Lent 27, then this could be Susanna – or the other way around.
We also saw two boys in Lent 27, at the top of the detail. One was in pink and yellow, and one held a bow. The same description could be applied to today’s detail, although the clothing is not the same (but we’ve seen that happen before) and a different child holds the bow (it’s good to share…). They could be the same boys – another puzzle, and, as before, it doesn’t matter if we can’t resolve it. But when we saw the two lads watching the Via Crucis I did wonder if they were innocent onlookers, or if we were seeing more innocence lost. I hope this detail answers that question. As with so many of the other children in the painting they look more like small, scrawny adults, but that’s just the artist’s style. They wear what I imagine would be very expensive outfits for any child, and also have an unmeasurable sense of the exotic, with long, slashed sleeves, loosely gathered waists, delicate colours, and one has an oddly-cut hood. They walk across the foreground of the painting, trailing the bow, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. And yet both gesture to our left: that is the direction they both want to go. Maybe this implies that this is where, in the painting – and therefore ‘the world’ – they want to end up. They are walking away from The Bad – Pilate, the chief priests, et al – and towards The Good – the family and friends of Jesus. They are moving from Christ’s left hand to his right, from the side of the damned to the side of the blessed. I really do hope that this is a conscious choice, and that it really indicates where they want to ‘stand’ in terms of good and evil. As I say, I do try to be optimistic.