Successor Hieronymus Bosch - The Carrying of the Cross

by Alexandra Tuschka


A wild crowd of figures cavorts on the picture background, many of whose faces appear caricatured and distorted. The overlapping of the persons is so concise and merciless that hardly any depth space is created, but instead a rather flat painting is to be found, which moreover does not want to reveal anything about where we are. In the center of the picture, the eye, battered by so much ugliness, finally finds its footing. Jesus, humble and calm, has closed his eyes and embraces his cross. Almost tenderly he nestles his cheek against the light wood.


In all four corners of the picture we find other familiar people, two of them are less creepy, the lady at the bottom left even really pretty. By her attribute - the sweat shroud with the image of Jeus - we easily recognize here Veronica, who owes her name to a biblical episode. She was present at the carrying of the cross, wiped the sweat from Jesus' face and then found his face on it. Her name "Vera icon" means "true image." Simon of Cyrene, a stranger who, according to the Bible, was forced to carry the cross with Jesus, is also shown here in part. The perspective is here admittedly strongly distorted, nevertheless Simon comes only with difficulty to the cross beam. We can see his nostrils well, but there is no trace of his eyes.


The two men above and below in the right part of the picture are the two thieves who are crucified together with Jesus. Their names are Dismas and Gestas, they are mentioned in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. Dismas turns to Jesus shortly before his death and is saved, he can be seen in the upper right, gray and not quite present, but at least more humanly drawn than his surroundings. Opposite him is a toothless monk, all the more deformed for it. Below right then Gestas can be seen, who in the source text mocks Jesus still on the cross. Here the rope has already been put around his neck, three nasty faces confront him and mock him. He growls back at them.

If the painting also seems chaotic, the composition is well thought out. The format is almost a square, Jesus is in the center of the picture, both picture diagonals are emphasized and point to him, on the one hand by the cross, on the other hand by the men who form themselves in this regard. Also, the rest of the people form other diagonal lines. Together with the fact that we find the majority of the men looking to the right, the mass also appears to be moving sluggishly to the right, following the man in armor who is giving the direction here. Where to, where from? The knowing viewer can guess, but the picture refrains from any description of the external circumstances. Rather, the artist seemed to be concerned with giving form to the inner ugliness of the people also on the outside. Veronica and Jesus have their eyes closed and are thus in a sense untouchable. The mockers, on the other hand, are disfigured precisely by their mockery and thus for us - the viewer - themselves become the object of ridicule. The interest in showing people in derailed states developed in the Netherlands of the 16th and 17th centuries, possibly through Leonardo's studies of "grotesque heads," into an independent genre of images, the "tronies." In this work, the creepy character heads certainly also serve to heighten the contrast to Jesus and Veronica to the extreme. The fact that the artist continues to show some professions recognizable here makes it clear that the disfigurement stops at no one and is of course also a criticism, for example, of the clergy, which at this time increasingly came under social criticism.

This forcing of many people into the background of the picture is rare, as many artists of this time strove for mastery of the representation of perspective and for the illusion of realistic depth. We know similar crowds, for example, from Lucas van Leyden, who in his "Chess Players" also shows crowded and somewhat exaggerated figures, although not in the drasticness found here. Likewise, the depth of space is strongly restrained and we find it difficult to discern any plausible interaction between the sitters. Rather, the artist may have been interested here - as in our "Carrying of the Cross" - in the exaggeration of the physiognomies, which then produces regular "human types" and makes the theme of the picture varied and interesting.


For a long time, "The Carrying of the Cross" was considered a late work of the painter Hieronymus Bosch, since it fit smoothly into his bizarre horror scenarios; the grotesque, the caricature are elements that are familiar to us from Bosch's ouevre. However, doubts have always been expressed about this classification, as many stylistic features differ from the famous painter's handwriting. These were then officially confirmed in October 2015 by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project Since then, the work is considered to be that of an unknown successor. Famously, in the wake of this disavowal, the museum director conciliatory said that even if the work was not by Bosch, it must be by a greater genius than Bosch.


Successor Hieronymus Bosch - The Carrying of the Cross

Oil on wood, ca. 1510, 76.7 x 83.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent


Leonardo da Vinci - Study of grotesque heads

Pencil drawing, ca. 1490, 26 x 20 cm, Royal Library, Windsor Castle


Lucas van Leyden - The chess players

Oil on wood, c. 1508, 27 × 35 cm, Gemäldegalerie in Berlin