Friday, October 20, 2017

“Christ Carrying the Cross:” A lesson

"Christ Carrying the Cross"
Hieronymus Bosch, or a follower of Bosch. 1510–1535.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Hieronymus Bosch always seemed a tad “off.” My guess is that his elementary school report card often carried the comment, “Runs with scissors.” He was the kid who was blessed with imagination disproportionate to his ability to filter anything passing through his noggin. If there is one quintessential Bosch piece, it must be his “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Most folks are at least vaguely familiar with the painting, most adolescent boys laugh at the artist’s propensity for putting things “where the sun doesn’t shine,” and most everyone assumes Bosch often got confused over which mushrooms were actually edible.

The quirky artist had lasting influence, however, and there is a possibility that at least one artist walked a very similar path. If this is so, then Bosch bequeathed not only his artistic approach, but also his mushroom bisque recipe to the unnamed follower who painted “Christ Carrying the Cross.” The debate over who painted the original – whether a follower or Bosch himself – is relatively recent, but we all know the thing was painted by an odd duck.

“Christ Carrying the Cross” simply bothers us.

There is a bit of logic behind the cast of uncomely characters, but it doesn’t much help in our appreciation, or lack thereof, of the piece. In the upper right, a death-like man rolls his eyes back, as if to heaven. He is the repentant thief, who is read the riot act by a snaggletoothed monk.

The thief’s unrepentant counterpart is in the lower right, who growls defiantly at his accusers – each of which is uglier, in turn.

At lower left is St. Veronica, who apparently is so enthralled by the holy shroud that she misses the reality of the Lord behind her. In that respect, her singular beauty is highly suspect.

In fact, there is so much ugliness in the masterpiece that the quiet visage of Jesus Christ sticks out like a sore thumb, and the mere existence of the painting challenges the viewer’s idea of beauty in art. The artist uses a different brand of ugliness that even Italian Renaissance master da Vinci couldn’t – or wouldn’t – pull off in his own drawings. The faces smack of something drawn on the edge of a boring Math book. They are caricatures of humanity. Their piercings might shock even the most radical Goth of today. Their warts and dental hygiene are questionable. The crowd is simply hideous, and it bothers us.

When pondering “Christ Carrying the Cross,” Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13, somehow came to mind. ‘The love chapter’ is one of the most-used – and arguably one of the most inappropriate – sections of Scripture read during wedding ceremonies.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

One can easily imagine the bride batting her eyelashes under a veil while the passage is read at the altar, and we can see the groom stealing sideways glances with fawn eyes. If, however, St. Paul‘s words are used as a shopping list of what should be expected in this life, let alone a marital life, then all of us would realize how bankrupt we are when it’s time to “check out.” “Christ Carrying the Cross” comes back to haunt us with its reality, we find ourselves in that painting, and it isn’t pretty.

But Paul’s words are not a shopping list for us; Paul’s words aren’t Law. They are Gospel.

If 1 John 4:8 is correct – and it most certainly is – then it is proper, at least for the purpose of illustration, to insert “Christ” where Paul uses the word “love” in his letter to the Corinthians.

This is where immense beauty returns to “Christ Carrying the Cross.” In spite of the sheer weight of ugliness, Love outshines every stroke of hideousness that we could ever bring to the tableau, and indeed have brought to the cross.

In this, we rejoice that Christ bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

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