The Way to Calvary, 16th century
Follower of Hieronymus Bosch
Oil on panel
Gift of Spencer Samuels, 77-29
The Way to Calvary depicts an anxious mob hurrying Christ to his execution. The throng of people, with their bright, garish clothing and their banner and horn, appear to be participants in a festive pageant. However, the barren landscape of dead trees and scorched earth, as well as the graveyard of gallows in the distance, lend their parade a sinister and foreboding mood.
Christ, appearing humble and faint, struggles to keep up with the mob under the weight of a large cross. Wearing a crown of thorns and with nail-studded boards attached to his feet, he is led mercilessly by one rope as he is flogged with another. The destination of the procession is a gnarled cross at the far right of the composition. The bones lying at the foot of the cross identify the site as Golgotha, the legendary location of Christ’s crucifixion and Adam’s burial. A thief kneels beneath the cross to give his last confession to a red-nosed friar. The man standing behind the thief places a hand on his shoulder, the only humane gesture evident in the painting.
It has been suggested that this compassionate figure may be a portrait of Hieronymus Bosch, the artist after whose work The Way to Calvary was modeled. The D’Arcy's painting closely resembles Bosch’s Christ Carrying the Cross, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Bosch is perhaps best known for his masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado, Madrid, which highlights the fantastic, often diabolic, imagery and cynicism for which he was renowned. In keeping with Bosch’s style, the faces of the figures in The Way to Calvary are ugly and distorted. The friar’s red nose, an allusion to drunkenness, is a cynical commentary of the clergy, a favorite topic of Bosch. Yet, for all of its underlying cynicism, The Way to Calvary does offer hope of redemption─for example in the symbol of the toad on the heraldic shield at the center of the painting. While the frog is at times a symbol of sin, death, lust, and heretics, and an attribute of the devil, it is also a sign of resurrection since the frog hibernates in winter and awakes in spring.