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Sculpture

 
mocking of Christ mocking of Christ mocking of Christ mocking of Christ

The derision of Christ

Origin / Date Champagne-Lorraine or Northern France?, c. 1430-1530
Material oak with polychromy
Dimensions 132 cm high
Availability Sold

Description

the monumental figure with legs carved free from the seat, using a wide tree but carved close to central pith with the back hollowed deep, localised losses at back and top of the head and small sections of strands of hair, the layers of polychromy largely posterior, the carving done with evident skill. Carbon dating gives a terminus post quem of c. 1430.

Commentary

Iconography

The various episodes of the Passion between the arrest and the crucifixion of Christ as recounted in the Gospels (Matthew 27, Luke 22, Mark 15, John 19), were increasingly subject to representation towards the end of the Middle Ages, perhaps in tandem with the growing popularity of the theatrical mystery plays that staged them.
This scene is a literal depiction of two episodes from various sources: the blindfolding and mocking before Peter’s denial (Mark 14:65, Luke 22:64) and the scene after the interview with Pontius Pilate where the crown of thorns and purple robe are placed on Christ (Mark 15:17-20 and Matthew 27:28-29), also known as the Ecce Homo when Christ is then presented to the crowd (John 19, 4-6). In this it is slightly different from Matthew 27, 28-29 where the presentation precedes the scourging, crowning and mocking, whereas in John the presentation comes after the scourging and crowning. In both cases Christ would have been naked under the cloak as here. However, there were in fact two scenes of derision, the first one being after Christ appeared before Caiaphas and was then blindfolded and mocked (see for example Duccio’s maesta in Siena cathedral). This is consistent with our figure who bears no traces of scourging nor crowning or being bound. In that scene however, depicted since Carolingian times, Christ would still have been robed under the scarlet cloak (see the 13th century passion window of the Sainte Chapelle, for example, or the crowning or mocking scene in the passion window of Rouen Cathedral of c. 1230). Though the new Franciscan influence on Christ’s suffering so favoured by Saint Louis led to an increase of depictions of this kind of scene, the nakedness (1) is a firm indication that our figure belongs to the end of the Middle Ages despite the very classical and proportional and restrained treatment which harks back to the first half of the 13th and the great cathedral portal sculptures of Christ in Judgment, as well as lesser known examples of the passion, such as the wall painting in Gussage St. Andrew, in Dorset, of the 13th century, which shows a patient, seated Christ with hands crossed in His lap. This pose with crossed hands is also a reflection of the Byzantine ‘imago pietatis’, where Christ’s dead body is held up to the spectator by angels, popularised by Venetian painters such as Bellini and Zoppo,
Due to the region’s very close commercial ties in the 15th century with northern cities like Antwerp, sculpture in Champagne also excelled in the other, more prevalent representation of a seated Christ, one which probably originated in Brabant and was both more apocryphal and better suited to show suffering: Christ seated on a stone near Golgotha awaiting death, the cloak often fallen at his feet. Spectacular examples exist in various Churches and in the Hotel-Dieu in Beaune. SInce most extant sculptures of Christ with a cloak on do indeed show him standing, crowned, scourged and suffering, following the ‘ecce homo’ according to John, our figure can truly be said to be rare. A beautiful example of a similar figure of the same dimensions without crown or rope and even without a cloak is ascribed to Nuremberg c. 1500 (Germanisches National museum PL. o. 112).
This multiplicity of sources is perhaps the reason why the iconography was sometimes subject to conflation, in early engravings of the subject for example. Moreover, it would seem that depictions of rarer scenes may not always have survived. Documents for payment to the talented Nicholas Halins for the voussoirs of the great portal of Troyes cathedral record in great detail scenes that are rarely represented “How Our Lord was beaten, pushed around blindfolded, crowned with thorns” and “pilate judging our Lord and washing his hands; showing our Lord to Jews saying ecce Homo” (Baudouin, 1990). He worked equally in stone and wood yet none of his documented works survived the revolution, excepting three small roundels in the church of St Madeleine.
Similarly, it is possible that wood sculpture was used more actively, the way it is done today in certain annual festivals and processions, as in Seville, further minimising their chances of survival. Thus, the Passion was played during the 15th century, and up to the second quarter of 16th century, in the Mysteres de Troyes . “Polychromed sculpture could here be used as a static double of the actors in order to stimulate the memory of faithful and make them relive scenes of liturgical theatre” (2). Here one should bear in mind too that the parts of Mary and Jesus were not usually given to living actors at all and that statues would have been used instead.
Style

Even though the great medievalists Marques de Vasselot and Raymond Koechlin already devoted a monumental study to the remarkable flowering of sculpture in Lorraine and Champagne at the end of the middle ages in 1900, and despite some pioneering works on the Master of Chaource (1956), it was a recent exhibition in Troyes (3), that showed the full extent and stylistic diversity of the talent that was active there at that time and which has not yet been fully documented.
It is not by accident, therefore, that in its naturalised idealism, or idealised naturalism, our figure is redolent of the great seated Christ in judgment representations at Chartres and Amiens.
Our figure is remarkable for its pose, which is dignified, with the head but slightly inclined, remaining very much within the Gothic tradition of the 15th century rather than the more muscular one of the 16th century. The figure is equally remarkable for the lack of suffering depicted. Rather than tortured or anguished, He is almost serene, and it is difficult to see whether the intention was to portray a look that was faintly ironical, as if interrogating the mockers in turn,  or one that is profoundly impassive in the sense of interiorised.
It shares features with many sculptures from Champagne. The marked rib tendons and square pectorals are seen on the pitie group in Saint-Phal dated to 1508 and the mantle hanging open, straight and loose over shoulders is a very particular motif of virgins in Champagne from the 14th to the16th centuries, such as those of Allibaudiere and Rouilly.

Our figure, like many others no doubt, probably owes a debt to the work of the Maitre de Chaource, one of the greatest masters of the region, named after his entombment there, who may or may not have been Jacques Bachot. In the pleated parallel folds of the drapery with the edges scrolling away on the shoulders, the sharp brow ridge,  the large, wedge-shaped nose that runs in a straight line from brow to tip and is squared-off at the edges, the sharply diagonal high cheekbones with hollow cheeks and a narrow chin,  the erect, frontal posture with legs positioned at a right-angles, the arms rigid and held frontally, the head facing forward and subtly inclined, the facial features elongated, the expression intense with an impassive stare (see especially the St Anne of the Education of the Virgin in St Jean au Marché, Troyes), the hooked terminals of the moustache ends, etc.
In fact, the proportions and general treatment of the whole body, including arms and legs, is very close to the Christ in the deploration of c. 1515 in St Jean au Marché, Troyes, also attributed to the Master.
Likewise, the treatment of both body and perizoneum is not only close to the Christ of Feuges, but even more a Christ associated with it, now in the Museum in Troyes (see Devaux, 1956 and Baudoin, 1990 fig. 126 bis).

However, there are certain specific traits that are different enough to narrow the search, namely the combination of straight hair curving backwards from the face in waves (torsadée in french) without excessive volume but with sharp and more widely spaced ridges, and the particular stylisation of the beard which includes distinctive, almost circular ringlets, as well as the more standard twisted strands.
This has echoes in the great entombment of Pont a Mousson in Lorraine (Baudoin, p. 87) thought to be either early 16th or, more likely, to date from the first third of the 15th century. This type of hair is seen equally in the ‘deploration’ of the church St Jean au Marché in Troyes as well as the Virgin of Rouvroy now in the Louvre, linked, by Baudoin at least, to this mourning. In this and overall design it also harks back, to the Christ figures of Dijon museum and Langres Cathedral, both subjected to the netherlandish influence of Sluter and his entourage. One of the earliest instances of tthe distictive curls for the side of the beard is after all Sluter’s King David made for the cross at Champmol. Separately, this kind of treatment of the beard with distinctive curled forked strands is most characteristic of Swabian sculpture,  specifically too, the Ulm tradition as epitomised by Hans Multscher and his followers. Interestingly, Multscher is generally credited with learning his craft in netherlandish Burgundy in the first place. In fact, since his beard extremities curl inwards rather than outwards as in Sluter, it is even closer to our figure, albeit still in a general rather than specific manner.

We have already mentioned that the pose of the figure is reminiscent of an imago pietatis , a theme that was also expressed in sculpture,  such as the remarkable alabaster of the mid 15th century associated with the Rimini Master, now in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp, and which, though difficult to localise given its Netherlandish influences may well betray an (upper-) Rhenish source as well.  (There is a similar alabaster figure of 1465 in Magdeburg Dom). Our figure shares a very similar inspiration, proportion and treatment with this smaller figure.
Very suggestive too in terms of the treatment of the hair and the curly strands of the beard and the crossed arms is the sandstone dead Christ in the grave of c. 1450 in the Johanniterkirche in Schwabish Hall also mooted by some as Rhenish. The general posture and the more pronounced forked beard are in any case reminiscent of the standing Schmerzensmann figures from Germany in the 15th century, specifically again the early Multscher figures at Ulm Munster and in Kassel, and various Rhenish ones (see, for example, one in the Kolumba Museum, Cologne). What one could therefore call germanic traits, the flat or concave forehead, gaunt features, heavy eyelids and interiorised expression are, in fact, all in evidence in one of the other great surviving groups, the ‘mise au tombeau’ of Notre Dame d’Epines formerly from the convent of the Cordeliers in Chalons and which Baudoin ascribed to a Lorraine atelier. This is less surprising if one remembers that the Swabian region itself extended to the Vosges at the time, and Rhenish inlufence was constant in Lorraine.
Not all these traits are exclusive to the region of course. We can see variants of the rows of curls of the beard and the strands of hair terminating in rounded curls in the pieta of Conches en Ouche, in Normandy, and from Viller-bocage in the same region we have a seated and cloaked ecce homo figure also presented frontally (though without other resemblances), but until further evidence can throw new light on the question, we can assume a North Eastern French provenance for this figure.

Notes

1. One of the earliest depictions of a Christ naked under his cloak is a drawing by the Limbourg brothers, The mocking of Christ, in brush and light gray ink, as well as in pen and black ink on paper of c. 1400-1405, now Copenhagen, The Royal Collection of Prints and Drawings. Inv.nr: GB 2971

2. Catalogue 2009, p. 79.

3. Exhibition, Le beau XVIeme, 2009.
http://www.sculpture-en-champagne.fr/oeuvres.php


This sculpture can now be seen in the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne
http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/

Provenance

French collection to 1995
English collection

Literature

R. Koechlin & M de Vasselot, La Sculpture à Troyes et dans la Champagne méridionale au 16me siècle. Paris 1900.

Dom Éloi Devaux, Le Maître de Chaource. Paris, Zodiaque, 1956;
and
Suite à Chaource - Cahiers de l’Atelier du Coeur-Meurtry - N° 40.


Pierre Quarré, Le Christ de Pitié en Brabant-Bourgogne autour de 1500 (exhibition catalogue, Dijon, 1971)

Jacques Baudoin, La sculpture flamboyante en Champagne, Lorraine, Creer, 1990

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