Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Meditation on the Passion – The Mocking of Christ by Fra Angelico

Mocking of Christ
From Petites heures of Jean de Berry
French (Paris), 1375
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 18014, fol. 82

The accounts of the Passion all describe the mocking of Christ. He is blindfolded, struck repeatedly, spat upon. A crown of thorns is placed on His head and he is mocked as “King of the Jews”. Later Pilate orders him to be scourged. (Matthew 26:67-69; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-65; John 19:1-3).

Most of the images of the Mocking of Christ are narrative in nature. They portray the scene as they imagine it may have looked. Usually Christ appears, either standing or seated, amidst two or more of his tormentors.

Mocking of Christ
From Salisbury Psalter
 English, 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 765, fol. 10
Mocking of Christ
From a Prayer Book
Dutch, 1515-1525
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS MMW 10 F 21, fol. 81v

One is, however,  different.

Among the most striking visual meditations on the Passion is a painting at the Convent of San Marco in Florence. It was painted by Fra Angelico in the period 1441-1442, when Angelico was engaged in decorating the cells of his fellow Dominican friars with some of the most remarkable religious images ever painted. 1 

In the period between 1438, when the Convent of San Marco in Florence was transferred to the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and 1445, when the renovations which followed their acquisition of the property were completed, Fra Angelico (real name in religion Fra Giovanni da Fiesole) and his assistants painted a series of frescoes in the corridors and other common spaces and in each of the cells in which the friars lived. The paintings in the cells are perhaps the most individual works of Christian art that have ever been painted. They are, in general, not at all like the depictions of similar scenes by other Quattrocento artists. Rather, they are visions and meditations in paint. The painting located in Cell No. 7 is probably the most unusual of these very unusual images.

Fra Angelico and assistants, Mocking of Christ
Italian, 1440-1441
Florence, Convent of San Marco, Cell #7
In the center of this painting we see the image of Christ, dressed in white, seated before a plain undecorated wall, on which hangs a green cloth of state. His eyes are blindfolded with some thin material that allows us to clearly see the outline of His closed eyes and nose. On His head is a crown of thorns and behind His head is a cruciform halo. In His right hand He holds a segmented staff and in His left hand what appears to be an orb. In other words, He is shown as a king, but a suffering king. The image of the king crowned with thorns is certainly in the tradition of prior images of the Mocking.

Crowning with Thorns
From Pelerinage du Jesus-Christ by Guillaume de Digulville
France (Rennes), ca. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 376, fol. 216

However, around His head we can see what are without doubt the most intriguing elements of this picture. Instead of seeing His tormentors, standing by, we see only the parts of them that are causing the torment. There are four disembodied hands; two on either side, and all of them are right hands. On the right of the picture, one hand is raised as if preparing to strike Him, while another right hand hits Him with a rod. On the left side one hand reaches up to pull His beard, while another, palm towards us, prepares to slap Him. And, perhaps most exceptional of all, a disembodied head (presumably the owner of the beard pulling hand) launches spittle at Him. Meanwhile, the head’s disembodied left hand mockingly raises his hat.

Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ (central image)
Italian, 1440-1441
Florence, Convent of San Marco

These elements of the picture are odd enough, but the curious quality of this painting is compounded by the figures in the foreground.
Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ
Detail - St. Dominic

Fra Angelico, Mocking of Christ
Detail - Virgin Mary

 On the left sits, Mary, Jesus’ mother. Her identity is certain because of her continuous presence in many of the San Marco frescoes. Surprisingly, her back is turned to the image of Jesus behind her. On the right, also with his back turned, sits St. Dominic, reading a book. Both of these figures are shown touching their chins with one hand. What can this mean?

First of all, note the separation in level between the central image of Christ and the figures in the foreground. They sit on a shallow step above the ground level. He is raised above them on a higher step, a kind of podium. He is removed from them by this difference of level. Further, the gesture that both are making, that of raising their hands to their chins, is a traditional gesture that indicates intense thought. We still use it today.

Therefore, what we have here is not a visual record of an event, not an illustration of a text, but a visual meditation on the Passion. We are invited by it to enter into the same thoughtful frame of mind as Mary and Dominic. The book in Dominic’s hand indicates that he is in the second level of Lectio Divina, that of meditation. He has read the text and is now pondering it.  What we are seeing is his thought.  The picture is, quite literally, reading St. Dominic's mind.  We are, as it were, "seeing" not with his eyes, but with his mind.

One writer has suggested that all of the frescoes in the cells at San Marco were designed to reflect the types of silent prayer that are described in a Dominican prayer manual for the Order’s novices, called De modo orandi.2 The manual was intended as a help in preparing the future friars for their eventual role as preachers. This 13th century handbook was reputed to record the gestures which St. Dominic himself used during silent prayer. The specific gesture in this picture is identified as “recollection”.

 The picture itself and the connection to the Dominican prayer manual suggest that this is the ideal work to begin a discussion of painted meditations on the Passion of Jesus Christ.

© M. Duffy, 2012
1.  Scudieri, Magnolia, "The Frescoes by Fra Angelico at San Marco" in Fra Angelico, New York, New Haven and London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2005, pp. 177-189. This is the catalogue of an exhibition of the work of Fra Angelico held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, October 26, 2005 - January 29, 2006.

2.  Hood, William, "Saint Dominic's Manners of Praying:  Gestures in Fra Angelico's Cell Frescoes at S. Marco", Art Bulletin, Volume LXVIII, Number 2, June 1986, pp. 195-206. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for an insightful commentary. I am trying to expand my meditation during praying the rosary and your words have helped tremendously