The artist uses light and shadow to draw attention to the central figure of Christ and in particular, to his bare right shoulder and arm and his upturned face. Nothing is known about the commission. The painting only came to light after 1916 and then was thought to be a copy of a lost original. But this opinion changed when it was cleaned in and restored in 1974/75. The restoration showed that it had been extensively repainted. Perhaps this was because it was just too realistic. This is not your average devotional image. There is a realism about it which is quite shocking even today. If you look carefully, you can see that each of the three torturers has a specific task. The man on the left holds the torso upright. His hand presses into the flesh of Christ’s side. His collaborator on the right grasps a lock of hair with his left hand to hold Christ’s head still while with the stick in his right hand, he forces the crown of thorns into the flesh. The third man to the front with a bare back has bound Christ’s hands and holds the ropes tight. Titian’s version of this subject which is now in the Lourve was painted for the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan and must have been known to Caravaggio. It has been noted that Christ’s torso resembles that of the famous Belvedere Torso in the Vatican, but it is likely that that Caravaggio is also quoting the torso in Rubens’ treatment of the same subject about this time in Rome. It was painted for the Roman Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (1601-2) and is now in Grasse. But in these two works the actions of the torturers are generic. They lack the detailed realism of Caravaggio’s painting. This painting resembles the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cerasi Chapel of Santa Maria del Popolo (1602) in that each of the three executioners has a clearly defined task. Their cold, dark and organised brutality is contrasted with Christ’s focused resignation as he gazes upwards in prayer to his Father. Caravaggio painted a number of other scenes from the Passion in these years in Rome. Each shows a tightly pack group of figures around Christ. This same contrast is repeated and in each Christ is the victim. Two details about this picture stand out for me. Christ’s right cheek and eye are swollen as if he had been punched sometime before. I don’t know of any other artist who shows such a detail. The other detail is hard to see in this image. It is the crown of thorns which is painted with great care and you can see the green of the branches. Here Christ is shown bound as a prisoner, the victim of assault, now undergoing even more torture. As in today’s gospel, it might prompt us to consider Christ’s kingship and his passion, and where Christ has positioned himself in our world and why.
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.