It is Holy Week, and for the remaining days of Lent, I will say relatively little (apart, maybe, from Saturday), but leave you with the painting itself to explore. By now, if you have a good memory, you should find almost all of it familiar, although I am imagining that, if you haven’t located the painting before now, then it would be quite hard to work out, from the details themselves, where everything belongs. And if you did not know this picture previously… well, I am really not surprised! If anything, I have been impressed by the number of people that found it, a few in the first week, and several more during the second. It really is not well known.
This is the left hand panel, known as Christ presented to the People. In its overall composition, it takes the form of an Ecce Homo. After the arrest, Christ is taken to Annas, and then to Caiaphas, and then to Pilate. He is sent to Herod (we haven’t even mentioned him), and back again to Pilate. Once it is decided that Barabbas will be freed, Jesus is first whipped, and then dressed in purple, crowned with thorns, and mocked a second time. John 19:4-5 tells us what happens next:
Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
‘Behold the man!‘ – or Ecce Homo – is the name given to images like this. However, the narrative has gone a little further, as he no longer wears the purple robe. An ensuing discussion – with the mob heavily influenced by the chief priests – determines that Jesus will be crucified. And Pilate, against his will, submits to this. Although other gospels tell us that the purple robe was removed, and replaced with ‘his own clothes’, John omits this detail. Nevertheless, the precise moment that is painted by the Master of Delft is, I believe, that in John 19:16-17, who tells us what Pilate did next:
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 into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha
We see the beginning of this progress towards Calvary, with the movement determined in the composition by two overlapping diagonals. Jesus is at the top of the few steps which constitute the Scala Santa, with Pilate looking down at him from his place in the shadows, just above and to the left. The Palace looms above him, and the sculpted archer at the top, when seen in context, seems to be taking direct aim at the Roman prefect himself. The tall, shadowy arcade looks rather oppressive, despite the appearance of the bright yellow sleeve and red hat of the black trumpeter appearing from one of the further arches. Jesus, and the guard behind him, who holds up Jesus’s robe so he doesn’t fall down the steps, both look down, and their gaze directs us along the diagonal formed by the rope held in the hands of the soldier wearing a pink jacket, behind whom a man crouches to mock Jesus. The rope leads our eye to the cross. This could have already grabbed our attention, as it projects into our space, leading our eyes into the painting, and up to the right – the second diagonal. It is framed by the legs of the carpenter, whose rear side forms the lightest area in the foreground, and claims attention for itself, thus undermining any dignity his profession might have. The carpenter reaches down to reach his auger to make holes to guide the nails. The line of his back, of the auger, and of the cross lead us past the weeping woman and her two children, past the soldier with the full, silvery sleeves, to the two thieves, about to head out through the city gate and turn right to the green hill without the city wall. The weather is lovely. The grass and the trees are green, the sky is blue – and so are the distant hills.