The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1564)

One of my very first offerings for My Daily Art Display was a painting by one of my favourite artists Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  Today I would like to revisit this artist and show you another of his paintings entitled The Procession to Calvary which he completed in 1564 and which now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.  This was probably the most complex composition of the Flemish painter.

This oil on oak panel painting was the largest known work of art by Bruegel the Elder, measuring 124cms x 170cms.  It is one of sixteen paintings by him which are listed in the inventory, drawn up in 1566, of the wealthy Antwerp collector, Niclaes Jonghelinck.  The composition is in some ways a traditional one.  It is the solemn religious event of Jesus bearing the cross on his way to Calvary where he is to be crucified.  However the story is transported into the time of Bruegel and by doing this the artist has given the subject of the painting an immediacy for his contemporaries as well as making a general valid statement about human actions.   It is not the Roman soldiers of Pontius Pilate that we see escorting Christ, but the mercenaries, in their bright-red tunics, who were in the service of Philip II of Spain, the ruler of Bruegel’s Netherlands. 

 When one first looks at the painting one does not know what to focus upon first.   It is a composition depicting Christ carrying the cross, as a semi-circular procession of incidental scenes set against a wide landscape crowded by tiny and animated figures.  Our eyes dart from scene to scene of this multi-faceted painting.  It is as if the painting invites us to look everywhere at once and not let our eyes loiter on one specific spot.   It is in some ways a chaotic scene, which one finds very bewildering.  It is typical of many of Bruegel’s paintings, which are usually filled with all types of characters.  There is a myriad of tiny figures rushing about, each with a task to be completed.   We are mesmerised as we try to see what each of the hundreds of figures is doing.  As we look at the bedlam we are drawn into it and become part of the crowd.   Some are arguing, some are fighting and as we look on we wonder what it is all about.  Our mind is in a whirl with all this hyper-activity.

The Mourners

So let me try and dissect the painting.   In the foreground, the sorrowful friends of Christ, standing on a small rocky crag, and are deliberately distanced by Bruegel from the hordes below.   These four figures, the Virgin Mary, John the Disciple and the two holy women, are larger in size than the rest and they are perched motionless and distraught above the chaotic goings-on below.  They are grief-stricken at what is going on behind them.  Saint John has moved to Mary, with her large blue veil.  Her face is pale and it seems as if she is about to collapse.  It is interesting to note that these two characters and those of the holy women are dressed in the clothes worn at the time of the crucifixion, whilst the rest of the figures, with the exception of Christ himself, are dressed in Flemish garments of Bruegel’s time.  Bruegel did this to give the painting a particular reference to his own day.

The Fallen Christ

Having let our eyes dart from scene to scene amongst the heaving mass our eyes try to find and focus on the figure of Jesus.  Our attention is drawn to the white horse and rider in the centre of the picture and then we see behind them the figure of Jesus who has fallen under the weight of the cross and is on one knee trying to raise himself up once again.  He is dressed in blue and yet for some reason it was hard for us to pick him out amongst the other characters.  Was that Breugel’s intention?  Did he purposely “hide” the figure of Jesus?  It is interesting to note that although Jesus is at the centre of the painting he is difficult to discern amongst the crowd.  His insignificance amongst the masses of people is a familiar device of Mannerist painting. 

Public executions were quite normal in 16th century life and especially in the troubled land of Flanders where Bruegel lived.  These macabre events were always well attended and had a carnival-type air to them.  I suppose that as such executions were carried out on a regular basis the onlookers became hardened and completely indifferent to the fear and misery of those being led to their death.   It is interesting to see that Bruegel has also added into his painting another regular happening at these events – pick-pocketing, as the crowds, in their excitement of seeing unfortunates being executed, were often oblivious to what was going on around them and were easy targets for the pickpockets.    

The two thieves

We see the two thieves sitting in a horse-driven cart being transported to their place of execution.   Their hands which hold a crucifix are tied in front of them and they look heavenwards beseeching for some divine mercy and at the same time babbling their final confessions to the cowled priests besides them.   The cart which trundles slowly on its way is surrounded by throngs of ghoulish spectators.


If we look to the upper right of the picture we see the mount of Golgotha and the two crosses already erected for the crucifixion of the two thieves.  Between them we can see men digging a hole into which the third cross, from which Christ will hang, is to be placed.  Crowds walk whilst others go on horseback towards this place so as to get a “ring-side” view of the forthcoming crucifixion.    As they move up the hill they pass through a landscape dotted with gallows on which corpses still hang and wheels to which fragments of cloth and remnants of broken bodies, not eaten by the ravens, still cling.

The sky to the left is blue and calm whereas the sky to the right over Golgotha is dark and storm-like and Bruegel’s landscape has us focusing on an impossible sheer rock outcrop atop of which perches a windmill.  Art historians differ on the significance of the windmill on this rocky structure.  However, impossibly sheer outcrops of rock characterize the landscape tradition of the Antwerp School founded by Joachim Patenier.

This is in some ways a moving painting with religious significance of Jesus on his long journey to his ultimate death.  However, as is the case in many of Bruegel’s painting, the animated antics of the numerous peasants depicted brings a smile to your face as you look to see what each individually painted character is doing.

Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna

Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna (c.1490)

My Daily Art Display today focuses on a painting, the subject of which has many similarities to the Hans Holbein painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, which was My Daily Art Display of the day on February 20th.  Today’s painting is entitled Lamentation of the Dead Christ and was painted by Andrea Mantegna around 1490.

Andrea Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo a small village close to Padua which was then within the Republic of Venice.  His father, Biagio, was a carpenter.  When he was eleven years of age he started an apprenticeship with Francesco Squarcione, an Italian painter from Padua.   His school was very popular at the time and over a hundred painters passed through the school.  Padua at the time was looked upon as a great place to be if you were and aspiring artist and the likes of Uccello, Lippi and Donatello spent time in the city.  Mantegna stayed with his tutor for six years.

Mantegna’s first work of art was an altarpiece for the church of Santa Sofia in 1448.  Although he gained a great reputation as an artist and was admired by many, he left Padua and spent most of his life in Verona, Mantua and Rome where he carried on with his paintings.  In 1460 he entered the service of Ludovico Il Gonzaga the Marquis of Mantua as his court artist.  This engagement earned Mantegna a great deal of money which was a sign of the high regard in which his work was held.  Whilst employed by Gonzaga he completed many fresco paintings of the Gonzaga family.

Today’s painting of the Lamentation of the Dead Christ was completed around 1490.  It is one of very few oil on canvas paintings of the period.  It is an almost monochromatic vision of Christ.  The painting has a limited amount of tonal colouring, mainly pink, grey and golden-brown.   The setting of the painting seems to be a morgue-like and claustrophobic space with its cold dark walls.  This poorly lit space intensifies the paleness of the body. 

Feet of Chirst

The forceful image is of the body of Christ laid out on a stark and granulated marble slab.  Mantegna has toyed with the rules of perspective making the head large, whereas if the rules of perspective had been adhered to then the head would be much smaller than the feet.  There is an intense foreshortening of the body which makes it appear heavy and enlarged.   

Christ’s suffering, before death, is plain to see.  Mantegna has given us an unusual vantage point.   It places the observer at the feet of the subject and by doing so, adds to one’s sense of empathy. It could almost be described as a gruesome sight.  The face of Christ is lined.  His head of wavy hair rests upon a pink satin pillow.  The wounds seen on the back of his hands are like torn paper, as is the horizontal cut in his side made by the spear. It is almost blasphemous, as here Christ has not risen from the dead and he is like us mortals.  In the foreground are the feet of Christ each with dried puncture marks made by the crucifixion nails.  Look at the skill in which Mantegna has painted the folds of the shroud.

The Mourners


At the left we have three mourners, Mary, Saint John and perhaps slightly hidden by the other two mourners, Mary Magdalene.  Their tear-stained faces are distorted in grief.  These contorted facial features derive from the masks of classical tragedy.  One cannot help but be moved by their expressions.

Compare this painting with Holbein’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and see which you think is the most moving.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger

Just over a fortnight ago an elderly relative of a friend of mine died.  Last week I went to the funeral service and just prior to the ceremony I was asked if I would like to view the body lying in the coffin before the lid was closed.  I said that I would like to pay my last respects to the deceased.   I was somewhat prepared for what I might see but when you gaze down at the lifeless body it still comes as a shock.  Notwithstanding how well the funeral home people have prepared and dressed the body, the viewing of the deceased is still a harrowing experience.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger (1521)

The other day I came across a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, which reminded me acutely of my experience and I decided to make it My Daily Art Display for today.  The oil and tempera on limewood painting, which can be found in the Kunstmuseum in Basle, is entitled The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb and Holbein completed it in 1521.  The painting is lifelike in size, measuring 2 metres long and just 31 centimetres high (79 inches x 12 inches) and depicts the dead Christ lying stretched and unnaturally thin in a wooden tomb.  The dimensions of the painting create a disturbing effect.  The painting has an almost claustrophobic shape.  Many artists, such as Caravaggio, Delacroix, Titian and van der Weyden have painted The Entombment but looking at Holbein’s portrait of the dead Christ is probably as shocking a picture as one is ever likely to come across.  Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece showing the ravaged and distorted body of Christ on the cross and The Deposition, his lowering to the ground, shows the strain on the body of Christ which one can barely imagine but Holbein’s Christ lying before us, dead in his tomb, is both intense and overwhelming.

One has to wonder what Holbein intended for this piece of art of such unusual dimensions.  Was it meant to be a free-standing painting or maybe it was to be a predella below an altarpiece?

Borne above the painting by angels holding the instruments of the Passion is an inscription in brush on paper:

                           “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IUDAEORUM”

There is a stark realism about the painting and I can only imagine that to stand in front of this life-sized work of art must be both awe-inspiring and shocking.  I am told that when you look at the painting, it is as if the tomb has been set into the wall of the gallery because Holbein has created a three-dimensional illusion.  The physical depiction of the body is realistic.  It is said that Holbein used a body dragged out of the Rhine as his model.  Looking at the body of the dead Christ is just like the experience I had a week ago when I gazed at the dead person, albeit she was clothed, but her hands, wrist and face were uncovered and discoloured.  Every physical feature of death is portrayed in this painting.  The body of Christ has the marks of the crucifixion.  We look in horror at the blood-caked wounds in the back of his hand and his feet, where the nails had penetrated.  We see the wound in his side which had been penetrated by the lance.  All the wounds are turning a gray-green and becoming swollen, due to the onset of gangrene.  Surprisingly, there are no marks on Christ’s forehead from the crown of thorns.

Details of the upper body


Details of the lower body

Let us look at some of the detailed work this great artist has given to this painting.  The blackened feet of Christ lie almost to the end of the stone-walled enclosure.  The bones of his body push against the flesh like spikes emphasising the hollowness of his ribcage.  String-like muscles press against the lifeless yellow skin.   Look carefully at the face of Christ which is slightly tilted towards us.  The hair of Christ spills over the stone block which has been covered with a white shroud.   His beard points upwards towards the low roof of this wooden box-like tomb.  His right hand balances on the edge of the dishevelled shroud.  All but his middle finger is curled inward and we can almost feel the pain the dying Christ felt as his life ebbed away.   His bony middle finger points, to what we do not know.  Except for the deathly pallor we may believe he is still alive.  His eyes and mouth are open.  We could be forgiven in thinking we are at the bedside of a dying man who looks heavenwards as he exhales for the last time.  Why did Holbein paint the dead Christ with his mouth and eyes open?  Could it be that Holbein is reminding us that even in death Christ nonetheless sees and speaks?  Is it to remind us that even from the decay of the tomb Christ did rise again on the third day?  In the fifteenth and sixteenth century, works of art similar to this, intensified the imagination of the observer with regards to the suffering Christ had to endure and by doing so giving an intensity to people’s meditations on Christ’s Passion.

This panel painting has attracted fascination and praise since it was created.   The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky was wholly captivated by the work.  It is said that in 1867, his wife had to drag her husband away from the panel lest its grip on him induce an epileptic fit.

The Descent from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden was born in, what is now, the Belgium town of Tournai around 1399.  His name at that time was actually Rogier de le Pasture which literally translated meant Roger of the Pasture.   His father Henri de le Pasture was a knife manufacturer.  At the age of 26 he married Elisabeth Goffaert, the daughter of a Brussels shoemaker, and they had four children.  In 1436 he was given the position of stadsschilder,  (painter to the town), of Brussels, a post especially created for him.  It was whilst living in Brussels, which was then a Dutch-speaking town, he began to use the Dutch version of his name: Rogier van der Weyden.

Today’s painting, The Descent from the Cross, was the centre panel of an altarpiece, of which the wings are lost, created by Rogier van der Weyden around 1436.  It can be found in the Prado, Madrid.  The painting depicts the lifeless body of Christ being lowered down from the cross.  The painting was commissioned by the Greater Guild of Crossbowmen of Leuven and was installed in the Chapel of Our Lady Without the Walls which was demolished in 1798.

The main figures in the painting are, to the right, Mary Magdalen with her fingers entwined. To the left of her, is Nicodemus, wearing a black hat and a gold-coloured robe.  At the centre of the picture is Joseph of Arimathea, wearing a brown skull cap, who can be seen supporting the body of Christ.   Mary Salome another half sister of the Virgin Mary, dressed in green, is to the left of the body of Christ seen supporting Mary.  On the left of the picture, dressed in a red robe, and also supporting the Virgin Mary is St John the Evangelist.