Christ Crowned with Thorns painting by Bosch

Christ Crowned with Thorns: Analysis of Bosch’s Masterpiece

When an artist wishes to relate to his audience they must connect to them on some common ground. To touch the deepest sentiments of people, artists from the Renaissance period often depicted an important scene from the “Passion of Jesus”. These glimpses from Jesus’ life are skilfully dramatized to highlight his pain and sacrifice for humankind. Through these paintings, the artist could share their devotion toward God with the masses.

An important part of the Passion of Jesus is his Crowning with Thorns. Hieronymus Bosch and Dirk Bouts have masterfully depicted the crowing with thorns through their art. Both their paintings share the same title – “Christ Crowned with Thorns”. Here’s a detailed analysis of Bosch’s 1510 painting. 

Christ Crowned with Thorns by Bosch. Public Domain
Christ Crowned with Thorns by Dirk Bouts. Public Domain

What is the Passion of Jesus?

During his mortal life on Earth, Jesus endured unimaginable pain and suffering. The phrase “Passion of Jesus” essentially refers to the very last chapters of Christ’s life where he sacrificed himself for our sins. The passion may be divided into eight parts. 

The very first of these events would be “The Arrest of Jesus”. Following Judas’ kiss, Jesus was discovered and arrested in Gethsemane. Soon after this the “Sanhedrin trial of Jesus” took place, where he was mercilessly tortured by the Jew guards in the high priest’s palace. During the same time the “Denial of Peter” causes Christ immense pain. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus has to go through “Pilate’s Trial”. Even though his innocence is proven the Jewish leaders and the mob demand that Jesus be crucified. Christ is then asked to drag the cross to Golgotha where he is crucified. After being buried for three days in Arimathea, Jesus resurrects leaving his tomb empty. 

The Crowning with thorns

The Crowing with thorns is an important event in the “Passion of Jesus”. Being part of the passion, it is obvious that the crown of thorns was an instrument to inflict more pain and suffering on Jesus. Moreover, the crown not only caused physical pain but also mocked Jesus for claiming the title of the King of Jews. The whole ordeal may be summarized by the following quote- 

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!”

(Matthew 27:27-29).

Christ Crowned with thorns by Bosch

This painting is sometimes also called “Christ Mocked” since the painting combines two important segments of Jesus’ passion. These two events as the name suggests are Christ’s crowning with thorns and the Mocking of Jesus.

Jesus had just been brought to the palace of Pontius pilate who presides over his trial. Even after knowing that Jesus is innocent, he orders for him to be crucified. Just before the crucifixion, Pilate’s soldiers mocked and flogged Christ. This brief period is what Bosch has attempted to depict in the painting.

To inflict more pain and mock Jesus’ audacity for claiming to be the king of Jews he was made to wear a crown of thorns. Even though Bosch’s painting doesn’t depict Jesus wearing the crown, other paintings from the same time do show his suffering clearly. In a painting by Caravaggio titled “Crowning with Thorns”, you can see the soldiers using tools to fix the crown forcefully on Jesus’ head. 

The Subjects in Bosch’s Painting

The scene portrayed in the painting is very personal. A viewer could metaphorically step in the frame and feel Jesus’ gaze on themselves. Combined with Christ’s silent calm gaze, the whole scene assumes a confrontational theme. It makes us think of our role in the event as silent spectators who can do nothing to stop injustice. Given the size and nature of the painting, it was probably made for personal prayer. 

Christ Crowned with Thorns painting by Bosch
Christ Crowned with Thorns by Bosch. Public Domain

There are subtle signs that reveal the identity of each of the five subjects in Bosch’s “Christ Crowned with Thorns”. On the top left corner is a soldier dressed in green robes. He is wearing leather gloves in his hands that hold the crown of thorns. He is in the process of placing the crown on Christ’s head. On the right corner is another soldier with an oak leaf fastened on his hat. He firmly holds Jesus by the shoulder with one hand and has a wooden stick in the other.

 

The soldier on the right leans near Jesus’ ear as if to whisper something, to probably mock him. He has an evil smirk on his face as he grabs Jesus by the shoulder.  An interesting detail is his red leather collar with metal spikes. This collar is usually worn by dogs and has metaphorical significance in the painting. 

‘Like a pack of dogs they have surrounded me. A company of evildoers have encircled me’

(Psalm 22:16)

Another reference to dogs is the special arrow in the other soldier’s turban. This arrow is used while hunting to hurt the prey so that dogs can catch them easily. This is an allusion to how cruelly Christ is to be tortured before he is murdered. Thus, just like the prophecy, the people around Christ have been likened to dogs in the painting.  

The two men at the bottom are part of the crowd that mocks Jesus and demands his crucifixion.  The man on the right is visibly trying to rip Christ’s robes. The other man has a sinister look on his face as he reaches to touch Christ’s hands. 

The artist has employed various measures to make Christ’s face stand out. The four men surrounding him are closing in near Jesus’ head. Apart from the faces, the hands of these subjects are also quite prominent in the picture. One may notice an almost straight line in the middle of the painting composed by the hands of these men. On top of this line is Christ’s right eye which again draws our attention to his face. 

The Color Palette

The palette for the painting is tasteful and austere but not boring. The clothes, skin, and props of the subjects share certain colors that echo throughout the painting. Similarly, different elements in the frame have both similar and contrasting textures. 

The green clothes of the soldier on the left accentuate the oak leaf on the other soldier’s hat. Shades of red have been used in the soldier’s spiked color, the clothes of the tormentors, and most importantly Christ’s hair.  Christ’s white robe is in stark contrast to the colorfully dressed tormentors. This highlights his innocence and passivity. 

Meaning and Analysis

Christ Crowned with Thorns by Bosch. Public Domain
Details in Christ Crowned with Thorns by Bosch. Public Domain

The most striking feature of the painting is the way Jesus looks at us. The serenity in his eyes, while he is being mocked is rather unsettling. Jesus makes direct eye contact with the viewer, however, they seem almost emotionless. His lips have a slight downward curve which points toward the fact that his face is completely relaxed. His head is titled on the right which shows that he is not straining himself to stand straight or resisting the hands that have been laid on him. Christ’s facial expression coupled with his posture reveals a state of acceptance where he doesn’t wish to fight back. 

Unlike the other paintings that depict Jesus’ crowning with thorns, his body is unharmed, clean, and glowing. His perfect body makes us imagine just how brutally he is about to be tortured. His emotionless face nudges the audience to imagine how soon the calmness on his face would turn into a painful grimace. 

Bosch has made an effort to show Jesus in a heavenly, otherworldly light just before his mortality is revealed. Apart from his unharmed skin, the crown of thorns above his head acts like a halo. Moreover, his gaze and lack of emotions make it look like he is mentally in a different realm. 

The people around Jesus have been drawn with enhanced Jewish facial features such as a large nose to make it clear that they are Jews. Paintings of this type have been instrumental in subconsciously instigating hatred toward the Jews in general. 

The painting has a monotonous gray background that lacks depth. However, this plain background has an important function. The closeness of the figures with the viewer make an interrogative scene. Christ is being held and surrounded while the same is happening to us. There is no room to avoid the suffocation and claustrophobia caused by the crowded frame. 

The four men in each corner of the frame have been likened to the four temperaments that make up a person’s personality. Each of the men seem to express one specific temperament. The soldier on the top left exhibits a choleric temperament whereas the one on the right has a sanguine temperament. The man on the bottom left has a choleric temperament and the man on the right expresses melancholia. A perfect personality exudes calmness in all situations and possesses a balance between these temperaments. It may be said that Jesus in this picture has been depicted as an ideal human being who is serene even while being tortured. 

Conclusion

Christ’s crowning with thorns was a popular theme for art during the Renaissance. However, there are several features in Bosch’s “Christ Crowned with Thorns” that make it as compelling as it is. The artist makes use of sharp contrast in the emotions of the subjects to draw the viewer’s attention. Even though the scene oozes violence and injustice, Christ remains indifferent, yet engages us with eye contact. Fear and foreboding linger in the hearts of the viewers, however, Jesus gracefully accepts the wounds of our transgressions. 

Bosch’s painting makes use of modern techniques both in its symbolism and structure that make it relevant in today’s time. 

Related Posts

Interested in allegorical paintings? Here’s something for you

Similar Posts