This dramatic panel is "one of the most hallucinatory creations of the history of Western art", in the words of Bosch expert Paul van den Broeck. It is presumed to be a late work of Hieronymus Bosch. The composition consists of a tangle of heads; there is no room for much else. Shortly after 1500, when this panel was painted, this was quite unique in European painting. The technique is highly sophisticated, and the colour palette in which Bosch has done the faces – some of them mask-like – and the headwear is extraordinarily rich. We are shown a scene from the Passion of Christ, a subject that plays a significant role in Bosch's oeuvre. Surrounding the serene heads of Christ and Veronica, who is the only female figure here as St Mary is absent, a crowd of misshapen and contorted faces, caricatures of humanity, throng like creatures from hell.
Most of the paintings by Bosch are religious, but at the same time, they are a critical analysis of the world and its human inhabitants. Bosch often does that in a highly ingenious way. This Christ Carrying the Cross demonstrates how deeply Bosch felt and identified with the suffering of Christ. This empathy fits in with the teachings of the late-medieval devotional movements from Bosch's time, which saw Jesus as a lonely and resigned man who conquered the sins of the ugly and even bestial world all on his own. For the "modern faithful", he was the prime example, but also an unattainable ideal. This is the message Bosch wanted to convey here.
The serene head of the suffering Jesus is placed at the crossing of two diagonal composition lines. One diagonal follows the beam of the Cross, from the head of Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped to carry Christ's Cross, to the "bad thief" at the bottom right, who was crucified beside Christ. The second diagonal runs from the bottom left, with Veronica's sudarium, to the pallid face of the "good thief" in the upper-right corner. He has the dubious pleasure of the company of a physician – or is it a Pharisee? – and a monk.
In many of his paintings, Hieronymus Bosch paints bad and sinful man, in every possible guise and situation. José de Sigüenza, a 16th-century Spanish author, wrote: "The difference between the work of Bosch and that of other painters lies in the fact that the others depict man as he appears on the outside. Only Bosch dared to paint him the way he is on the inside."For comparison, see The Lamentation, after Hugo van der Goes.
SizeH: 76,7 cm
MediumOil on panel