France: The derision of Christ

At the hub of the great tradition of figurative art in medieval Europe is Christ himself, isolated and exemplary, even in the most crowded of scenes. Whether portrayed in life or death, as child or man, Christ remains the narrative focus of art of this period. Accordingly, he is the one constant element that unites and makes intelligible the National Gallery of Victoria’s holdings of medieval and Renaissance painting and sculpture.

It is with pleasure that the acquisition of a rare early example of a freestanding sculpture of Christ can be announced. The derision of Christ, dated to the 1450s, has been purchased thanks to funds generously donated by Xavier College Advisory Board, Melbourne donors David Byrne and Jack Rush, and two others.

A monumental sculpture carved in oak, The derision of Christ shows a frontal view of the Saviour as a hieratic figure, seated upright on a block. Stripped to a loin cloth, Christ is left naked beneath a red cloak draped across his shoulders in mockery by Pilate’s men. His bound hands, crossed before him, clasp a missing reed and palm. Traces of blood and nail holes around the head suggest his crowning with thorns, and bloodlike streaks to the shoulders and legs indicate his flagellation. The horizontal alignment of Christ’s long fingers and lifted forearms poignantly echoes the pattern of his protruding ribs. The episode is a variant of the ‘Ecce Homo’ or ‘Behold the Man’ moment described by John (19:5), in which Christ is presented to a hostile crowd shortly before his execution.

Despite the injunction of the Second Commandment against the making of ‘graven images’, the practical need for visual depictions of the Saviour and his earthly helpers, the saints, was widely accepted in a medieval world in which few could read, yet all could be moved to devotion and recollection through the faculty of sight. The emotional power of images from this period, made by anonymous craftsmen, seems unusually concentrated in the The derision of Christ, which has lost none of its charge five centuries later, in part due to its startling verisimilitude.

This painted and almost life-sized statue of Christ helps us to further explore the often vital role of polychrome sculptures in religious processions, an important and theatrical dimension of medieval sculpture that is attracting increasing interest among scholars. The sculpture, which is hollow at the back and remarkably light for its size, might conceivably have occupied a niche for most of the year, only to be brought out and carried at the front of religious processions for important church festivals, such as Palm Sunday.

The derision of Christ encapsulates the essence of the Passion, which emerged in visual form during the medieval period and reached its emotional zenith in the Baroque art of Catholic Europe and its colonies during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This majestic – and consciously archaic  – polychrome version from the fifteenth century reveals the immense drama and dignity of the same subject as conceived by late medieval carvers, making it a marvellous starting point for the NGV’s representation of this major theme in Christian art.

Sophie Matthiesson, Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2013).