Bosch's 'Christ Carrying the Cross'

Gordon Marsden looks at how a Passion portrayal by one of the Middle Ages' most enigmatic painters, unlocks the door to the intense world of late medieval religious devotion.

Of all the religious art that survives from Northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, that dealing with the events of the Passion of Christ is among the most powerful and pervasive. Whether set out in the high art commissioned for great rulers, rich bourgeois, church dignitaries or institutions, or in the low art of cheap woodcut sheets or. illustrating devotional books now widely available to the layman via the new medium of printing, the final stages of Christ's life, from the triumphal Jerusalem entry on Palm Sunday, through to the agonies and trauma of the garden of Gethsemane and the killing-field of Golgotha, were rendered with a power and obsession previously unattained in a thousand years of Christian art.

This development was not an isolated aesthetic fashion. It sprang from crucial changes in theology, doctrine and religious devotion, both private and public. As artists representing the Passion had a common body of symbols, gestures and images with which to work, there was no need – and little inclination, in a world where Gregory the Great had declared that religious painting was the bible of the unlettered, and the concept of 'art for art's sake', yoked to a function either religious or secular, was unknown – for an artist to branch out and produce his own private iconography (such as Picasso was to do in the twentieth century with 'Guernica').

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