To mark and celebrate Easter, this year I’m focussing on paintings which attempt to give a complete account of the Gospel narratives of the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection. These are relatively unusual, compared with the multitude showing just a single scene from the whole story. From a religious view, this is strange, as the significance of individual parts rests in the whole.
Telling such a complex story is demanding of the narrative skills of any artist. There are few techniques which could successfully support incorporating more than a couple of scenes into a single coherent image, and it’s both impressive and fascinating to see how this problem has been addressed.
There are more secular historical precedents in a form of painting which is now long-forgotten, the Wheel of Fortune, which was popular during the Middle Ages.
William de Brailes’ Wheel of Fortune from about 1240 is based on this folk theme, but becomes more elaborate than most other depictions. At its centre is Fortuna, Roman goddess of fortune. The outermost ring of images – each a circular frame – show four different scenarios at the three, six, nine and twelve o’clock positions.
These are connected by half roundels showing twelve stages of life from the swaddled baby (at seven o’clock) to death at five o’clock. Inside those are inner half roundels showing scenes from the life of Saint Theophilus the Penitent, which start at one o’clock, and end at twelve o’clock. Each frame within each cycle has been carefully aligned to ensure that the concentric cycles are in approximate synchrony, and the individual contents have been aligned so that the page can be read in a single orientation. These form a curious combination of religious and folk-secular themes typical of the Middle Ages.
One of the earliest attempts to tell the full story of the Passion in a single integrated view is Duccio’s Stories of the Passion, which he painted on the verso of the Maestà for Siena Cathedral between 1308-11. Most of these panels are readily recognisable, but the sequence in their reading may not be immediately apparent.
This starts with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem at the lower left, moves on to the Last Supper to the right of that, and so on across to the middle. The two central scenes in the Garden of Gethsemane then link to the right edge, work back towards the centre, and jump from there to the upper left. The Passion itself completes with the central crucifixion, scenes at the tomb on the right side, and completes with the story of the Resurrection.
Looked at from the point of view of someone who has read many comics, graphic novels, etc., this may appear confusing. But viewers of the day would be only too familiar with each scene and story in the cycle, and probably wouldn’t have thought twice about their complicated layout.
This anonymous account of The Life of Christ and Mary painted in Bruges in about 1410-20 follows a more regular sequence, and is read row-by-row starting from the top, and the left end of each row. Unlike Duccio and Wheels of Fortune, the area allocated to each scene is identical, although there’s heavy emphasis on the Passion, which starts in the middle of the second row, and completes at the end of the fourth.
It was more than four hundred years before anyone used the same narrative technique for comics, but at least it was well-tried and tested by then. A far more ingenious approach was adopted by Hans Memling.
Here each of the individual scenes making up the Passion as a whole is located in a different part of a fictionalised aerial view of Jerusalem. This does lead to some strange effects, though. For example, he shows no less than three separate crucifixions: at the upper right of the city is the first, with Christ laid on the cross but still on the ground. The second is above and to the left of that, where all three victims are seen on their crosses. The third and final scene is to the right of that, where Christ’s body is being brought down in a Deposition.
The buildings provide demarcated spaces for many of the scenes, almost framing them, perhaps. This is a technique used in illustrations for children’s books which we use to teach them how to read multiplex narrative, without really being aware of what we’re doing.
Ten years later, Memling painted his Advent and Triumph of Christ (1480) using a similar narrative technique. This shows twenty-five scenes from the whole life of Christ, starting with the Annunciation at the top left, omitting the Crucifixion itself, and ending with the Assumption of Mary at the lower right. The narrative thread is unfortunately not as clear as his previous Scenes from the Passion of Christ.
It was Hieronymus Bosch who painted a more direct descendant of the Wheel of Fortune, on the reverse of his Saint John on Patmos.
This series of scenes from the Passion of Christ is arranged in a circle, around a central image of a pelican feeding its young with its own blood, a well-known symbol of self-sacrifice. They are painted in a brown grisaille, with small patches of orange and red to represent flames.
The scenes shown start at the 5 o’clock position, with the betrayal and arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, and move clockwise from there. The next shows Christ brought before his judges, then his scourging and beating. The upper section shows a sequence from his carrying the cross to Golgotha, his crucifixion there, and his body laid in the tomb. The final scene, at the 3 o’clock position, shows his resurrection from the tomb.
The lower two-thirds of the scenes are carefully divided into frames, five in total, but the upper third merges its three scenes into a single multiplex image, in which Christ appears three times: at the left carrying his cross up to Golgotha, at the top on the cross, and at the right his body being laid in a coffin for burial. This uses a common location for those three scenes in an ingenious composition.
The central image of a pelican feeding its young from its own blood not only sets the moral theme of self-sacrifice, but also solves the problem of how to bring the peripheral scenes together in the centre.
The peculiarity resulting from this otherwise ingenious composition is that the narrative sequence begins at the five o’clock position, in order to accommodate the resurrection scene at the tomb, at the right. Bosch leaves the viewer to work that out, which should have been an easy task in this case, given the familiarity of contemporary viewers with the stories shown.
Like so many of Bosch’s paintings, we can only marvel at his original solution.