Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Carrying of the Cross

The Carrying of the Cross by Jacquemart de Hesdin, a French Renaissance painter, depicts Christ on His way to Calvary amid a large group of people. I would call the style idealistic, with a focus on the characters depicted and their role in the overall narrative that connects the separate parts of the painting.

The use of color in the painting involves bold contrast. The entire image seems to burn with a golden glow, with large patches of red and deep blue scattered across it. Christ and Mary are linked together with striking blue robes, as she follows Him, weeping. Christ is turned to face a cluster of women, who reach out to Him mournfully. We think of Jesus meeting the women of Jerusalem, as well as meeting his mother, a juxtaposition of the fourth and eighth stations of the cross.

The cross that Christ carries is T-shaped, and hanging impossibly far back behind and over His shoulder. A man with some semblance of a halo around his head, similar to one around Mary’s, reaches out in wonder as if to support the end of the cross. Perhaps this is meant to be Simon of Cyrene, or perhaps Simon is the older man whose face is sharply inserted between Christ’s and Mary’s.

The painting has a busy background, though it gives the impression of moving straight up rather than back into the distance. Soldiers, clerics, and warriors armed with shields and spears crowd behind Christ. One of the thieves who is to be crucified alongside of Christ carries an identical cross behind Him. The shapes of the two crosses intersect, and provide a strong geometric framework that bisects the painting. Just behind him, you can just see the second thief.

Behind this sprawl of people, a rocky cliff crawls up on the right, and a castle is placed opposite it on the left. Between the two is a brilliant night blue sky with a morbid scene against it. We see Judas hanging himself from a tree, one hand grasping the noose symbolically. A ladder leans against the tree beneath him, as what looks like a winged demon flies around his head. A small figure, half hidden by the horizon, looks up at Judas in horror. This whole scene is greatly out of scale: while logically, it must be farther away than the castle, it’s painted big enough to be much closer.

Christ Himself doesn’t seem to be the main figure in this image, or at least not the only one. He almost seems to be lost among the action that’s going on. When you consider this along with the relative size of Judas, it’s clear that the artist wants much of the attention to be on the recent suicide in the background. The story is clear: the man above is responsible for the events below, and the event below is in turn responsible for the choice Judas finally made. The man now dead will soon be joined by the man he betrayed, but will most likely have a less glorious epilogue.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.