100 Works of Art: (Visual) Christ Crowned with Thorns, Dirk Bouts

To see why I’m rabbiting about my feelings in relation to the works rather than talking exclusively about the works themselves, please see the first of these posts.

13. Christ Crowned with Thorns, Dirk Bouts (c. 1470-5)

This painting is another National Gallery find, like the Ortolano St Sebastian, Sandro Botticelli’s Portrait of a young man, and Seurat’s Le Bec du hoc, Grandchamps, so it is pertinent for me to repeat perhaps just how much I love the fact that this institution does not charge a mandatory entrance fee. It allows me to go in and wander about and make new discoveries or wallow in individual paintings, and when I worked on Shaftesbury Avenue in the summer of 2006 it was where I spent my lunch break, both sheltering from too much sun and filling my mind up with glorious culture after hours of making corrections to documents about railway franchises (the glamorous life of the temp typesetter, there).

I am fond both of the institution and of the collections, and it is a great pleasure to consistently discover new things to like about the place: as a child my mother took me to a Monet exhibition there (two reasons: as a child I was obsessed with Monet, and my mother was in London for a mature students’ conference of some kind); killing time before a ballet when at secondary school (I believe, but am not sure, it may have been a performance of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella) I stumbled on a film and talk about Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-mode and have loved it ever since.

Christ Crowned With Thorns, Dirk Bouts
Christ Crowned With Thorns by Dirk Bouts

This painting has been a relatively recent find for me, and it as only on the most recent trip that I made a point of writing down the name of the painting rather than referring to it – as I have done in the past when trying to lead my friends to it – as “the miserable Christ”.

A small, devotional image intended for private contemplation and backed by more of the eye-catching gold leaf that this particular wing of the museum is packed with, what separated this painting from its fellows in a similar class was in part the simplicity: it is only Jesus, alone, to the waist, showing his wounds.

What interests is also in part the contradiction: he is wearing a robe of high office in glorious red – over his naked and somewhat abused body. The crown of thorns is cruel and and thick and looks like it might well be heavy as a thorned branch can be. Worst of all, Jesus’s lips and face are turning the haggard grey of death even as he stands and shows he is risen. This is why this painting is also referred to as “Zombie Jesus” when I’m trying to find it.

It is the suffering and resignation, the sadness of this picture – intended for the viewer to contemplate – which captivates. In late images of the risen Christ the focus is on the incredulity of the disciples (there is plentiful imagery of Thomas the Doubter achieving various degrees of what frankly looks like finger-fucking on Christ’s spear wound), and in much iconography the serenity of Jesus is the focus.

Here, however, stands a man exhausted by pain and by sacrifice, showing his wounds. They are not trivial, either: the nail wounds in his palms are gaping (if medically inconsistent with crucifixion as he would be hanging from his wrists and his hands were supposed to be horizontal to his shoulders at the beginning of the crucifixion and blah blah pedantry about torture) and oddly clear blood dribbles from them all despite the necrotic colouring above his wounds and on his face.

And he weeps. His eyes are downcast. As an image of suffering for the contemplation of the devoted Christian soul, it fulfils a purpose. Central to the idea of the faith is the sacrificial king and the new convent between Yahweh and his people: I have wiped the slate clean, you must now give thanks.

However as I think I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m an atheist. As far as I’m concerned this diminishes the spiritual impact of the painting for me, as I don’t have a spirit for it to have any impact on; on the other hand, the depiction of human frailty and suffering and the notion of Christ the Man undergoing torment for reasons of faith continues to have the same emotional impact as before.


2 thoughts on “100 Works of Art: (Visual) Christ Crowned with Thorns, Dirk Bouts

  1. Very nice, and I entirely degree with your last paragraph. I’m an atheist, but many of may favourite works are ‘devotional’; like you, I respond to the profound humanity.

    1. I’m really glad it’s not just me! It feels a bit odd viewing something that was clearly intended for worshipping something I don’t believe in but loving it anyway; then again churches and temples are amazing buildings and they don’t become any less amazing for not (in my eyes) having anything “divine” in them.

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