November 23rd 2019

“The Crowning with Thorns”, Caravaggio, 1602/03, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna. When I saw this painting for the first time what struck me most was the force of the downward thrust exerted by the soldiers.  In 1638, this painting is listed as belonging to Vicenzo Giustiniani. It may have first belonged to his brother Cardinal Benedetto who died in 1621. Both were  patrons of Caravaggio. It is known that in 1683 it was placed above a doorway in his Palazzo.  Caravaggio exploited the fact that Christ would be viewed from below. Looking upward, the viewer cannot but sense the soldiers’ brutal downward thrust as they force the thorns into his flesh and bone.  Yet Christ’s shoulders remain upright.  His posture is one of dignity. But his condition as a victim is seen in the way his head is thrust forward and his neck stretched out.  Caravaggio uses the play of light and shadow to focus us upon Christ’s neck and shoulders and therefore upon him as a victim. The white feather and the highlights on the suit of armour contrast with Christ’s exposed white skin. The man in armour is obviously in charge of the brutal procedure.  His armour renders him invulnerable. It gleams in the light and contrasts with the bare shoulders of the other three. Christ is naked except for his cloak. The blood is splattered on his bared chest reminds the viewer that the red cloak hides the open wounds on his back.  Caravaggio uses hands to further underline express the imbalance in power.  You can see that Christ’s hands are bound so that he must hold the makeshift sceptre between his fingers. The hand of the man wearing armour is not very far from Christ’s hands.   Notice that the man merely rests his handoff the ledge.  His hand does not take his weight. The hands of the soldiers have become fists as they exert great force.  He achieves a similar expression by contrasting the crown of thorns in the headgear of the other three.  From the white feather on the left, there begins what is a continuous line of light moving left to right and back again forming a kind of halo behind Christ’s head. At the centre of this image is Christ as the innocent victim of a brutal act but who, nonetheless,  can retain a quiet dignity. In this we see his gentle sovereignty and his solidarity with other victims of our today.  The detail of the crowning with thorns is not found in Luke. In the other gospels, he is flogged, and crowned with thorns. They place a cloth over his bleeding back, and then mock him as they kneel before him saying,  “Hail King of the Jews.”  Luke has Pilate’s soldiers mock him only later as he hangs on the cross and,  of course, it is in Luke that he exerts his sovereignty from the cross in his words to the good thief and his continuous pleading:  “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Cardinal or his brother may well have commissioned this painting for their own apartments. When he or his brother looked at it, above a doorway in his rooms, who or what did they see?  Was it the victim, the spotless lamb, who takes away their own sins and the sins of world, or did thy see God and how he freely chooses to position himself in our sinful world? 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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