Christ bearing the Cross

Brabant, Antwerp 
Mannerism, second half of the 16th Century


Oak, carved in high relief 
H. 43 cm. W. 28 cm. D. 13 cm. 



Private collection, Brussels, Belgium



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Art historic rapport Christ bearing the Cross [pdf]




This impressive sculpture depicts one of the most popular stations form the Passion Cycle: Christ bearing the Cross. In the centre of the composition, Christ is depicted wearing a long, heavy shroud through which his anatomy is clearly viable. On his head he wears the Crown of Thorns. He carries the Cross over his left shoulder. His upper body and arms are tied with ropes. Christ is flanked by two Roman soldiers wearing Classical styled armour, referring to Ancient Rome. The group is composed moving to the right. The soldier who is leading Christ forward holds a knotted rope in his left hand that runs down from Christ’s shoulders over the soldier’s upper leg and a beating-bat in the hand of his twisted right arm. The soldier wears an outstandingly composed helmet that covers most of his face. Visible are his sharp nose and pointy beard, which lend him sturdy features. The soldier who is standing behind Christ wears a feathered Roman helmet together with an impressive suit of armour, which is embellished with elegant decorations in high relief, featuring a striking grotesque (1) on his chest. This soldier holds a bat is his right hand, ready to strike. His muscular body and his powerful, violent pose together with his mocking facial expression, form a remarkable contrast with the solemn and submissive pose of Christ. The illusion of movement is enhanced by the way in which the legs of all three man point to the same direction.


This group is sculpted from a solid piece of oak. The piece is in a remarkably good condition with only minor restorations: the top of the cross has been replaced, as well as a fragment of the base and the two beating bats. Since there are no traces of gesso, it is unlikely that this piece was ever polychromed. The group was not a part of a larger sculpture, but an autonomous work of art in its own right.



Art historic significance


This group is a clear expression of Mannerism: the art historic period that emerged from the later years of the Italian High Renaissance, around 1520, and onwards spread all over Europe. The Northern Mannerism continued into the early-seventeenth century, after which it submerged into the Baroque. Stylistically, the highly sophisticated art of Mannerism encompasses a variety of approaches influenced by and reacting to, the harmonious ideals and restrained naturalism associated with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and early Michelangelo, often in an attempt to excel the serenely balanced art of High Renaissance (2). Mannerism is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. The ingenious poses of the figures in this group (especially the soldiers), are clearly influenced by the ‘figura Serpentinata’: the spiral pose that is typical of Mannerism (3). The artificiality of the composition is also exemplified by the seemingly correct yet disfigured proportions and anatomy of the figures. From a Manirist’s perspective this makes sense, since the expressiveness of the group and harmony of the composition are far more important than depicting reality. The composition of the group is carefully balanced. The diagonal lines of the Cross are, for instance, echoed in the right arm and the bat of the soldier standing in front of Christ. The Cross - which is too small - has been given a less dominant place within the composition of the group, in order to allow all the attention to go to the three figures. Other striking elements are the highly refined sculptural details in the armour of the soldiers and the physiognomy of all three figures.



(1) In art, grotesques are ornamental arrangements of arabesques with interlaced garlands and small and fantastic human and animal figures, usually set out in a symmetrical pattern around some form of architectural framework, though this may be very flimsy. Such designs were fashionable in ancient Rome, as fresco wall decoration, floor mosaics, etc. The delight of Mannerist artists in arcane iconographic programs available only to the erudite could be embodied in schemes of grottesche.
(2) For further reading on Mannerism, see: Würtenberger, F. (1963). Mannerism: The European Style of the Sixteenth Century. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston; Shearman, J.K.G. (1967). Mannerism. Style and Civilization. Harmondsworth: Penguin; Smyth, C.H. (1992). Mannerism and Maniera. Vienna: IRSA
(3) In art, figura serpentinata (derived from the Latin meaning ‘serpentine figure’) is a style in painting and sculpture featuring figures in a spiral pose. It is similar, but not identical, to contrapposto. Early examples can be seen in the work of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo. With the development of the Serpentita, a style of form began by which figures showed physical power, passion, tension and semantic perfection. Movements were not without motivation, but with will shown in a pure form. For further reading on figura serpentinata, see: Maurer, E. (2001). Manierismus: Figura serpentinata und andere Figurenideale. Zürich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag.

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