Schongauer’s Christ Carrying the Cross (c.1475)

The story of how Christ was led to his death is so well known that it is easy to think of this image as biblical illustration. Yet Christ is just a title;  Jesus (real name) trod a path for all to follow. Jesus as Christ had long been considered the mystical archetype of humanity, a new Adam, because man was made in God's image.1 It was quite widely believed that Christ, man's perfect Self, is inside you.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Martin Schongauer, Christ Carrying the Cross, also Road to Calvary (c.1475) Engraving on paper.

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Now note Christ's principal tormentor holding him. The man faces Christ as an artist in front of his artwork and he wears a turban, commonly used to keep paint off hair.2 Christ is larger-than-life to signal his status as a work of art, on a different level of reality.3 The blade of the man's long spear also resembles the hard, diamond-shaped tip of an engraving tool and in touching the edge of the image (oval at top) it implies, as is often the case, that it is engraving the image too.4 The rope of the other tormentor's whip trails in the air like a free-flowing line from a pen (second oval). The two figures are linked both narratively and allegorically..

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Schongauer's Christ Carrying the Cross

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The figures of Christ and the man holding him seem stilted and artificial, quite unlike the more natural poses of the crowd. They draw attention to their forms which are reflected as in a mirror, the mirror of the artist's mind. Before I flip the image, though, note how Schongauer's monogram -  M & S  - is positioned directly under Christ.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Christ Carrying the Cross

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With the detail flipped (upper images), the legs and pelvis of the man can be seen to form an M like that in the monogram (below). His legs and even his foot are suggested in the letter's uprights, a technique Dürer also used.5 Christ, on the other hand, is S-shaped like the artist's other initial. Schongauer is both Christ and his tormentors. Subject and object, artists and artwork, have become one. In esoteric Christianity Satan does not exist because evil represents the chaos inside us. Without chaos there could be no imagination. Besides, in God, all opposites are united.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail (l) and mirrored detail (r) of Christ Carrying the Cross
Bottom: Enlarged monogram from Christ Carrying the Cross

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When Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden they became self-conscious and mankind no longer felt whole. The world of humans became one of duality: good and evil, subject and object, you and all else. That's why the artist-craftsman is represented here by two tormentors who, on successful completion of their work, become one in Christ. Christ is their Self because, as always, every painter paints himself.6 The crowd, by the way, represent "studio assistants" with tools of their own and "viewers" amazed by the art. It is a scene in a studio in Schongauer's mind in the process of its own becoming, the art and its creation fused.

See conclusion below


 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Christ Carrying the Cross

Click image to enlarge.

I have already shown similar techniques and meaning at work in Schongauer's St. George and the Dragon (c.1480). Please take a look.

Notes:

1. In my opinion Adam's skull is often depicted at the base of the Cross on Calvary in scenes of The Crucifixion, not just to link the Old Testament with the New as conventionally argued, but to indicate that Christ, like Adam, is a generic human. He is in all of us. A skull, after all, lacks marks of personal identity thereby suggesting it could have been anyone.

2. Some artists such as Van Eyck even wore turbans in their self-portraits. See Filippino Lippi's Dead Christ (c.1500) and the Artist's Turban.

3. Like the "painting" within the painting in Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863), "works of art" within an image are often shown out-of-scale. Few know this.

4. In self-portraits the artist's brush is often poised at the very edge of the image because the image is, in theory, the mirror in which he copies his reflection. In the studio the actual painting is just out of view, perpendicular to the mirror he looks into, which explains why the brush is positioned at the far edge. See my post "Pointing at the the Edge" (December 2012).

5. Dürer, who was a great admirer of Schongauer, used the forms of his monogram in figures within his works on many occasions and throughout his career. See, for instance, Virgin and Child (c.1491), Stag-Beetle (1505), St. Dominic (1506) and St. Jerome in His Study (1514).

6. There are two tormentor-craftsmen because the artist's mind, like all minds, is divided into opposites, uniting its oppositions only when it discovers its true Self in God, Christ. In that way, two becomes One.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 01 Jan 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.