For those wishing to observe Easter, and for anyone who appreciates the wealth of paintings depicting the events of the first Easter, here is a selection of paintings.
Gaudenzio Ferrari’s Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513) arranges twenty frames covering the life of Christ around a central frame with four times the area of the others, showing the crucifixion. The frames are read from left to right, along the rows from top to bottom, although the crucifixion is part of the bottom row.
Hans Memling’s intricate Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1470-1) shows a (very imaginative) bird’s-eye view of Jerusalem, in which each of the major scenes in Christ’s crucifixion are placed. These start at the top left, with Christ riding into the city on Palm Sunday, weave their way down the left side of the painting, which includes the Last Supper almost half way down the left edge, then cross into the centre, for the flagellation. The narrative chain then runs down, turns to the right, and ascends to the crucifixion at the top. That is shown twice, to accommodate the descent from the cross, and scenes following the resurrection are towards the top right.
Hieronymus Bosch’s Passion Scenes (c 1490-95) are detailed here.
Scenes from the Passion
William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden is an unusual moment from the popular sequence of the Passion. Although much of it is dark (it is set at night, in the Garden of Gethsemene), Blake’s imagery is as radical as that in his watercolours. The story is a composite from the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and shows the instant just before Christ’s betrayal by Judas and his arrest. An angel appeared from heaven, to strengthen Jesus, and “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”
Christ’s head is tilted in the extreme to face the angel, who grasps him under the armpits. The angel has descended from a brilliant red burst, at the top of the painting. The disciples are seen asleep among the dark tree-trunks.
James Tissot’s huge series of watercolours shows the Passion in great, and sometimes graphic, detail. Jesus Before Pilate, First Interview shows the episode from Luke 23:1-4 and John 18:33-38 in which Pilate, the Roman governor at the time, questions Jesus and concludes that there is no basis for any charge against him. Technically one of the most brilliant paintings of the series, it is easy to mistake this for being painted in oils.
Hieronymus Bosch’s The Crowning with Thorns (c 1490-1500) is detailed here.
Hieronymus Bosch’s Ecce Homo (c 1475-85) is detailed here.
Lovis Corinth painted Ecce Homo at Easter, 1925, as an act of meditation to mark the festival. It shows the moment that Pilate presents Christ to the hostile crowd, just before the crucifixion. Christ has been scourged, bound, and crowned with thorns, and Pilate’s words are quoted from the Vulgate translation, meaning behold, the man.
Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1490-1510) is detailed here.
James Tissot’s Jesus Bearing the Cross (1886-1894) is another watercolour from his unique series.
Lovis Corinth’s Christ Carrying the Cross (1909) explores Christ’s Passion in very real terms. Although this contains most of the usual elements seen in traditional depictions, his language is contemporary, almost secular. Two men, one of them apparently African, are helping Christ bear his exhausting load, while a couple of soldiers are whipping him on, and threatening him with their spears. A third soldier is controlling the crowd at the upper left, and behind is a mounted soldier and one of the disciples.
Hieronymus Bosch’s Calvary with Donor (c 1490-1500) is detailed here.
Frans Francken the Younger’s The Crucifixion of Christ, with Scenes from the Life of Jesus (1600s) puts the crucifixion scene at the centre of a rectangle, around which there are twelve scenes from the life painted in either normal or brown grisaille. Unfortunately those peripheral scenes are difficult to differentiate from one another, thus to identify, but they appear to be read in a clockwise direction from the upper right, rather than linearly.
William Blake’s The Crucifixion: ‘Behold Thy Mother’ (c 1805) is a traditional scene from the Passion, and refers to the gospel of John, chapter 19 verses 26-27:
When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold thy mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
James Tissot’s What Our Lord Saw from the Cross is a uniquely innovative and narrative depiction of the crucifixion.
James Tissot’s The Descent from the Cross or The Deposition shows Christ’s body being taken down from the cross after his death, and removed for burial. With so many Masters before him, Tissot was spoilt for choice as to how he depicted this, and seems to have been inspired mainly by Rubens’ version from 1617-18, arguably the most famous of all.
Unlike Rubens, he ensures that most of the faces are not visible, which ingeniously dodges arguments about who actually was present at the time: John 19:38-42, for instance, only identifies Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the Gospel accounts mention an undefined number of women, including Mary Salome, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene.
The Deposition (Descent from the Cross) (1895) was one of Lovis Corinth’s major paintings from his time in Munich, and won a gold medal when it was exhibited in the Glaspalast in Munich, in 1895. It shows the traditional station of the cross commemorating the lowering of the dead body of Christ from the cross, attended by Joseph of Arimathea and Mary Magdalene.
This work is a thoroughly modern approach to this classical theme, in its framing, composition, and the faces. Its close-in cropped view suggests the influence of photography, and the faces shown appear contemporary and not in the least historic. These combine to give it the immediacy of a current event, rather than something that happened almost two millenia ago. Corinth returned to the subject of the Deposition, and the theme of the Crucifixion, in many of his paintings.
Gustave Moreau painted several versions of the Pietà (c 1876), this one on a tiny panel. It incorporates some of the more radical imagery which was appearing in his mythological paintings, with the blue wing in the centre.
William Blake’s The Entombment (c 1805) refers to the gospel of Luke, chapter 23 verses 53 and 55:
And he took it [the body of Jesus] down, and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid.
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid.
William Blake’s The Angels hovering over the body of Christ in the Sepulchre; Christ in the sepulchre, guarded by angels (c 1805) elaborates the gospel accounts of Christ’s body in the sepulchre with reference to the description of the tabernacle in Exodus, chapter 25 verse 20:
And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be.
This may have been in the light of Hebrews, chapter 9 verse 5:
And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.
William Blake’s Christ Appearing to His Disciples/Apostles After the Resurrection is one of Blake’s large colour print series from 1795, which refers to the gospel of Luke, chapter 24 verses 36-40:
And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, “Peace be unto you.” But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, “Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.
I wish you a peaceful Easter.