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James Ensor - The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889

by Alexandra Tuschka


Well, here it is necessary to look more closely. A figurative masquerade parade draws towards us. If the title had not told us that we should look for Jesus here, we would probably be distracted longer by all the confused figures. But now we discover quite present on the picture center axis a yellow halo, which makes the Savior identifiable. Also this rides on a donkey, so that we have now no more doubt. We already know the entry on the donkey in the art, here it usually goes to Jerusalem; but in our work to the Belgian capital Brussels. Also, Jesus is the only one with a truly human face, which also makes him stand out from the crowd. At the same time, it is not clear for all of them whether the others are mask-wearing persons or simply strongly caricatured faces without masks. On the right side of the stage we see a scrawny official, he is overlooking the action. He has probably already looked too deeply into the glass, his red nose is unmistakable. Next to him are some clown figures, somewhat enlarged in dimension.

he work combines elements of carnival processions, military parades, but also political protests and, as already mentioned, religious motifs. A banner with the words "VIVE LA SOCIALE" (loosely translated as "Long live the social") crowns the entire scene. This is an allusion to the turbulent social unrest of the 1880s. Ensor himself was sympathetic to the socialist movements and supported left-wing political views. In front, a red, round bishop leads the parade out of the picture space and toward us. Triangularly, the lines of flight loosely integrated by the people draw us into the picture's background. No shadow is visible, so that hardly any depth space is created and the work appears rather two-dimensional.

Ensor's exploration of Christian themes, especially the New Testament, occupies a central place in his ouevre. Many researchers also assume that Our Jesus is a self-portrait by the artist. That Ensor identified himself with Jesus is also proven, for example, by the picture "Calvary", in which not "INRI" (Jesus, the King of Nazareth) - as usual - hangs above the crucified, but a provocative "Ensor". That such a representation can also be taken up blasphemously is obvious.


However, Ensor also enters into a tradition that we already got to know in Dürer's self-portrait: the artist stages himself as a fellow sufferer of Jesus by becoming similar to him. The "imitatio christi" was already a principle of the church in the Middle Ages. It says that one should take Jesus as an example and emulate him. Of course, this is meant in a figurative sense. Some artists, however, took this call literally.

The choice of this image theme is also usually interpreted in this way: Jesus is shown here, as Ensor was in his life, as a misunderstood outsider in a crazy society. This sought colorful pleasure and now reveals its disfigured grimaces. Jesus is staged here as a modest, natural leader. The many colorful masks are not only due to the theme of the picture, but are the trademark of the Belgian. It was especially his grandparents with their cabinet of curiosities that shaped the young Ensor as a child. A store full of old clothes, colonial goods, costumes and masks.


But another detail reveals the further layer of meaning: the double "XX" that is being vomited on is no accident. Nor is it a coincidence that it is so difficult to discover. For the "Société des Vingt" or "Les XX" for short was a Belgian artists' association co-founded by Ensor. In the association he repeatedly met with criticism, this work was also submitted by Ensor to the annual exhibition, but rejected.

What a pity, it would certainly have been a satisfaction for the artist to hide this piquant detail in their rooms. Instead, Impressionism and Pointilism prevailed among the "XX", which Ensor considered to be devoid of content. However, it was the Pointilist Seurat, of all people, who was invited with his work "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte," which Ensor rejected as cold and soulless. But Octave Maus, the secretary and director of the "Twenty" called Seurat the "Messiah of the new art". Thus, the "Entry of Christ into Brussels 1889" can be understood as a statement of what the painter really thinks of the ability of critics, especially the artists' association, to recognize the true Messiah. Possibly, the painting style, which has pointillist features due to the spackling of individual color blobs, is to be interpreted as persiflage.


James Ensor - The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889

Oil on canvas, 1888, 252,6 x 431 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


James Ensor - Calvary

Drawing, 1886, private collection


Georges Seurat - An afternoon on the Ille de la Grande Jatte

Oil on canvas, 1884-1886, 207, 5 x 308,1 cm, Art Institute in Chicago


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