Sunday, March 4, 2012

Carrying the Cross

A letter to my son, Jacob
Christ Carrying the Cross
Hieronymus Bosch
C L I C K     T O     E N L A R G E

Picture:  800 x 746 at 300 dpi - Hieronymus Bosch

We are so much a part of our time it seems almost impossible to imagine how we would be were we to live five hundred years ago.  What would our thoughts be?  What would be our ideas of truth?  How long could we expect to live?  What was the nature of life itself?  If I was a painter with talent and I wished life to be kind to me I would strive to be a painter of the court.  I would paint portraits of royalty.  I would cater to those having the money to provide me a living that would make my time on Earth rewarding.  As much as possible I would want to avoid the pain of a brutish existence.  I would hope for myself and those I love a life filled with uplifting thoughts and cherished emotions.  I’m afraid there would be little chance for me to have such a blessed life.  Most likely I would be born among the peasantry, the masses of people exposed to winter cold with inadequate clothing, and the clothing I did wear would crawl with vermin that constantly made me itch.  I would be angered by the lurking rats everywhere that stole my bread and gave me sickness by leaving their filth.  The sight of me would soon become ugly from poor health and shabby dress.  My teeth would fall out.  Were I to die I would be quickly disposed of and not missed.  I would desperately want for better.  What I would do to gain the imagined pleasures and joys of those I view more fortunate than me, is best left unsaid. 

Who is this Christ they speak of?  What is he to me?  I think he mocks me.  He is not one of us.  Had he my clothes, my lice, my open sores and the constant pain in my jaw he would not carry on as he does.  Had I his hands-on magical powers I would not feel as I do – miserable, angry and in constant fear of death, being dropped in a damp hole and covered with cold mud.  He walks among us but he shares not who we are.  He rides no horse and wears no fine attire but he is royalty, none the less.  He knows not of my life.  If he is to speak he needs first to feel my pain.  Bring him down.  Bring him down to me.  Let him taste all the rot that I know. 

Five hundred years ago Hieronymus Bosch painted Christ Carrying the Cross.  The image is of a man among men, singled out, isolated and, surprisingly, mostly ignored.  Among the various faces there is excitement.  There are expressions of comradery and the kind of shared happiness found in vindication.  We won!  The verdict is death and it all seems too good to be true.  He is brought down.  The fakery is revealed.  There are few causes for celebration in these lives but this is clearly one.  Why is that?  Here Christ is shown in despair.  Is this the victory?  Maybe, but only a couple of people in the crowd are finding pleasure taunting him.  What do we make of the woman turned away, revealing little more than a small, smug smile?  Who is this man peering from the lower left corner as though he doesn’t want to be left out from the recording of the event?  Then there is the anonymous one, mostly in shadow, that may find in Christ a kindred spirit.  His appearance, what little is shown, indicates a strength and determination not found among the others, not even in the man carrying the cross.  Whatever more Christ may be he is still a man and being condemned by his brethren is not a willed bidding. 

There is portrayed here both the ignominy that is crafted from squalid existence and an involuntary majesty revealed by those nearly incapable of being unhinged from their own desirable humanity.  The man carrying the cross shows his burden but the ravaged faces of those about him display what it truly means to feel oppressed.  We don’t knowingly choose to live impoverished lives.  Had we to take on the life of one of those people depicted in the painting, chances are it wouldn’t be among those celebrating.  Sure, they are mostly grotesque in appearance but there is more that makes them unappealing.  The habits of our face can reveal our inner self for others to see.  The faces of those gathered around the man with the cross are those of the damned.  They have come to revel in his demise and, yet, how interesting it is that to him they have come at all.  Aren’t these the people least deserving of being saved but still the ones most needing salvation?  Maybe that is what this is all about.  Christ is here, the fisherman, gathering those most likely to join him in Heaven.              

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