The Flagellation of Christ


Renaissance, first quarter of the 16th Century, ca. 1520


Limestone, foreground carved in almost full-round, background carved in high relief, traces of original (?) polychrome 
H. 32 cm. W. 21 cm. D. 8 cm. 



Private collection, Brussels, Belgium




This rare and masterly carved group depicts the Flagellation of Christ (also known as Christ at the Column), a station of the Passion of Christ that is frequently expressed in Christian art in cycles of the Passion or the larger subject of the Life of Christ. This station of the Passion is mentioned in all four canonical Gospels (John 19:1, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:63-65, whereas Matthew 27:26 states that Christ was scourged). Under Roman law the flagellation was the usual prelude to crucifixion. In the Passion-cycles this scene usually precedes the Mocking of Christ and the Crowning with Thorns (1). The column to which Christ is normally tied, the ropes, scourge and whip are traditionally part of the Arma Christi (2).


In the centre of the composition of this limestone group, Christ is depicted tied to a Doric column, wearing a loincloth. Christ is depicted in almost full-round and stands out from the rest of the group. Notable is his highly detailed body, that reveals great attention for anatomy and bodily proportions and the almost elegant pose of Christ, in the Classical contra-post position. Interesting about the arrangement of the composition, is that the group is divided into two levels: that of the wicked tormentors surrounding Christ, and that of the shocked and distressed Apostles in the upper part of the composition. This division follows the traditional compositions of late-Gothic Netherlandish altar-group sculptures and woodblock compositions.


Christ is flanked by two soldiers in powerful poses, holding flogs, ready to strike. The figure to his right wears a typical Landsknecht (3) attire in Renaissance style, consisting of a cap, a cuirass with attached faulds, a codpiece and striking paned slops with hoses and low shoes. In his raised right hand he holds a scourge. Between his feet a whip lies on the ground. Between Christ and the soldier, another figure stands out from the background, with his mouth opened, counting the number of floggings out loud. The figure on the left wears a loose fitting tunic, held up with a belt on which he wears a remarkable dagger of the so-called bullock dagger type, which was very popular in Flanders and the Southern Netherlands during the sixteenth century. At his feet lies a child-like figure, wearing a round cap above his deformed sardonic face. Notable are the wicked and even grotesque faces of the three tormentors. This element clearly relates to the late-Gothic tradition of depicting the tormenters of Christ as evil characters (4). Their evil facial expression and violent postures form a large contrast to the almost serene Christ.


The upper level of the group is formed by three figures, recognizable as the Apostles Paul, John and (possibly) Peter. In the middle, right above Christ, stands Saint John, the youngest Apostle, who is usually depicted beardless. He wears long robes and a cloak, held together with a rectangular clasp. His face displays distress, an emotion that is accentuated by his opened arms. To his right, Saint Paul is depicted wearing long robes and a waving cloak, fasted with a knotted belt. He is about to draw his sword, not only in rebellion to the torturing of Christ, but also as a reference to his main iconographic attribute, the symbol of his martyrdom through beheading. On the left side, a bearded figure is depicted, dressed in heavy robes which cover most of his upper body and wearing a Renaissance style cylinder-shaped acorn hat. The posture of the figure suggest that he draws a weapon as well. Note that the composition of this figure is totally different from that of Saint Paul, whose arms are not covered by his cloak. Since this figure has no clear attributes, his identification remains speculative. Still it is most likely that the figure represents Saint Peter, who does not only play a crucial role in the Passion of Christ, but who is also typically depicted as the counterpart of Saint Paul. Furthermore, on the basis of the description of Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 265 - 339), Saint Peter is commonly depicted with short, curly hair and a short frizzy beard (5). Also noteworthy are the high sculptural quality of the refined physiognomy of the Apostles.


Art historic significance


The depiction of the Flagellation in Christian art is relatively young. It does not appear in Western art until the tenth century, probably due to the fact that flagellation was considered a grave insult. It is virtually absent from Byzantine art, and remains very rare in Eastern Orthodox art at any date. The Flagellation is first found in the Romanesque illuminated Codex Egberti (ca. 985) in Trier, in which Christ is depicted fully dressed. Onwards this station can be found in other manuscripts and small ivories. From the twelfth century it is standard that Christ wears a loincloth and faces out towards the viewer (6). Traditionally, Christ is whipped by two servants of Pontius Pilate. During the late Middle Ages, probably under the influence of Passion-plays, the number of men beating Christ and the crowd surrounding the scene (often wearing Jewish attire) get larger. Schiller notes that in the North of Europe these figures become increasingly caricatured or grotesque, and are depicted in the dress of contemporary mercenaries (7). This is clearly the case in the present group, that - together with evident South Netherlandish stylistic elements - must be of Flemish origin.


The present group follows the traditional artistic representation of this biblical event. The tormentors are clearly recognizable as soldiers, although not as Roman military, but as contemporaries, wearing present attire. This is again a clear South Netherlandish element, in particular displayed in Early-Netherlandish painting, where biblical scenes are typically situated in present-day surroundings (8). Christ's idealized nude body, however, reflects an emphasis on Classical prototypes, unmistakably influenced by Italian Renaissance. The same goes for his elegant contra-post position and the great realism and individuality in the facial characteristics of the Apostles. In addition, the serenity of Christ clearly relates to the South European Renaissance tradition which favours the ‘submissive Christ type’ opposed to the ‘suffering Christ’, that is distinctive for North European art. The absence of Christ’s suffering is balanced by the tormentor's dynamic poses, which create the drama desired to intensify the impact of the religious image.

As outlined above, the group incorporates elements from both the late-Gothic period and from Renaissance. Apart from the date and location, it remains impossible to establish an exact attribution. Evidently the sculptor was of Flemish origin (evidenced by the late-Gothic South-Netherlandish elements in both style and composition) but he was undoubtedly aware of Italian Renaissance as well. Due to the combination of styles, a clear attribution to a certain master or his workshop is not possible. Several South-Netherlandish sculptors were influenced by Italian Renaissance and adapted it to the Northern tradition and taste. In comparison to, for instance, the work of Cornelis Floris (Antwerp, 1514 - 1575), one can clearly see that the present piece is slightly earlier, suggesting a date to the first quarter of the sixteenth century, around 1520.


(1) Schiller, G. (1972). Iconography of Christian Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, Vol. II, p. 67
(2) The Arma Christi (Latin for ‘Weapons of Christ’), or the ‘Instruments of the Passion’, are the objects associated with Christ’s Passion in Christian symbolism and art.
(3) Landsknechts were European, most often German, mercenary pikemen and supporting foot soldiers from the late 15th to the late 16th century, and achieved the reputation for being the universal mercenary of the European Renaissance.
(4) Renowned for this type of depiction are the Passion paintings by Jheronimus Bosch.
(5) The appearance of Saint Peter was established in the 5th century on the basis of a description given by Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 265-339): short curly hair, short frizzy beard and a marked face. His attributes are the keys, a book, a rooster and sometimes a boat. See: Giorgi, R. (2004). Heiligen. Gent: ludion, p. 299.
(6) Schiller, 1972, pp. 66–67
(7) Schiller, 1972, p. 68
(8) e.g. works by Rogier van der Weyde, Robert Campin, Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck and the School of the Flemish Primitives.

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