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March 24, 2005

A Painting for Good Friday: HiŽronymus Bosch's The Calvary with Donor

Posted by Roger Homan

Bosch, HiŽronymus van Aken (1450-1516)
The Calvary with Donor, c. 1480-85
Musťes Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels

Because salvation is secured by Crucifixion and not by Resurrection, Good Friday is arguably the most important day in the church's calendar. Images of the Crucifixion are legion. Seldom may one enter a gallery of medieval art without finding a Calvary to represent the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was the standard theme rather more for painters in northern Europe than in Italy; in the first few rooms of the Uffizi, for example, the Crucifixion is greatly outnumbered by the Madonna.

The standard formula is faithful to the biblical account. The Cross on which Jesus hangs is attended by his mother and the disciple whom he loved, traditionally assumed to be St John the Evangelist since it is in the fourth gospel that he is featured by so cryptic a reference. This arrangement is to be found not only in paintings but in three-dimensional representations. The Cross that in some churches surmounts the chancel screen or is suspended from the chancel ceiling is invariably accompanied by these two figures. The Calvary in the Rood loft was a favourite target of Cromwell and not a single example survived his iconoclasm.

There were, however, other witnesses to the Crucifixion than Mary and John. Some paintings are more crowded. In The Calvary with Donor, Hieronymus Bosch uses a group of four witnesses to study the variety of emotional and spiritual responses to the death of Jesus.

To the viewer's right we have the Church, personified in the standing figure of its founder St Peter: he is identifiable by his dangling keys and his white hair. And painted into the picture is the kneeling figure of the sponsor of the painting. We may find ourselves relating to him, not merely because we covet his striped pants, but because he is presented as the continuing and praying church. Notice that Peter, the Rock on which Christ founded his Church, now leans on the shoulder of the one who carries the Church forward with his prayers.

If on our right we have the Church, on the left we have faith and mission. Here are the beloved disciple and Mary the mother of Jesus.

And are there any tears among those who wait at the foot of the Cross? In Bosch's Calvary, as is usual in Christian art, Mary remains faithful to the conviction of her Son's place in history. In medieval art this ordeal is frequently numbered among her Sorrows but it is also an act of completion. It is therefore that the instrument of torture becomes for the faithful the means of salvation and they can come to kiss it in the Good Friday liturgy. The beloved disciple, meanwhile, invites Mary to move on. This is the moment when, according to the narrative, Jesus looks down at them and utters the words to his mother "Behold thy Son" and to the disciple "Behold thy mother". Then the two go off to keep each other company. Upon those whom Bosch invites to view this scene, it is a poignant moment of responsibility. The relationships that Jesus formed in his mortal life passes to them. The ministry to the poor, the humble, the vulnerable, the sinner is for them to deliver. Jesus had sought the sick and estranged and as he dies he passes over that mission to his followers. Teresa of Avila has it thus:

Christ hath no body now on earth but yours.

No hands but yours, no feet but yours.

Yours are the eyes through which must look out Christ's compassion on the world.

Yours are the feet on which he has to go about doing good.

Yours are the hands with which he has to bless men now.


Most visitors to the Royal Gallery in Brussels will spare at most a couple of minutes and move on. If so, they are likely to miss the reflection of themselves in the scene behind the Cross. The horizon is occupied by a recognizably Flemish town. A path leads across the fields toward the town and on it we find a couple of passers-by, going about their usual business. The attendants at the Cross are left alone but for the world this is just another day. It is the feeling we have when we accompany the hearse to church or chapel for the funeral of a loved one, occupied in our own grief but noticing that Mrs So-and-So is off to do her shopping.

W. H. Auden wrote a poem entitled Musťe des Beaux Arts. Doubtless he was mainly prompted by Breughel's Fall of Icarus in the next room but his words apply equally to the figures on the path to the town:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.

Roger Homan is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Brighton and author of The Art of the Sublime: Principles of Christian Art & Architecture, (Ashgate, 2006).


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Professor Homan:

With all due respect, your statement that "salvation is secured by Crucifixion and not by Resurrection," thus rendering Good Friday "arguable the most important day in the church's calendar" is very sloppy theology indeed and simply not in accord with historical Christian doctrine.

Fundamental to the New Testament is the conviction not simply that Christ was crucified, but that he rose again. Paul writes that 'If Chrsit has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins' (I Cor 15:18).

The early church did not draw a line of division between Crucifixion and Resurrection, always viewing them as two inseperable parts of a larger whole. There is solid evidence that the second-century church's Easter vigil was a single festival celebrating both Crucifixion and Resurrection; it was only in the fourth century that a seperate observance of Good Friday emerged. The Passion or Pascha of Christ has traditionally been applied jointly to the Death and Resurrection. Any attempt to separate the two, and certainly elevating the importance of one over the other, creates a fundamentally imbalanced theology of redemption.

Posted by: Serge at March 27, 2005 04:27 AM
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