The head and upper chest of the figure emerging from the dark background seem at first to face us squarely. With its broad peasant's nose and slightly parted, full lips, the face would not be remarkable but for the searching eyes and their haunting expression. Gradually one notices, thanks to the light and subtle modulation of the flesh, that the head and shoulders turn somewhat to their left. Resting lightly on the figure's head, and casting a shadow, is the strangely delicate circlet of a thorny branch. (Were it gold, it could almost be a prince's crown.) The arms are bound behind the figur's back.
This is Antonello da Messina’s “Christ Crowned With Thorns,” a painting from 1470, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and an exquisite example of what has been called an Ecce Homo or Man of Sorrows genre that had been popular in the West for almost two centuries before this panel was painted. (In the East the theme emerged in the 12th century.) This suffering Christ confronts not just his tormentors but everyone who is arrested by his image. He suffers, yes. Above all, though, he questions. What might he be saying? Subject to such abuse, does he defend himself? Implore? Accuse? Judge, perhaps?
One remembers the Reproaches of the Good Friday liturgy: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” Except that this face is as gentle as it is searching; this wounded body is still somehow inviolate. Only the first verse of the Reproaches seems to apply: “My people, what have I done to you?”
The Christ this painting invites us to contemplate is too infinitely open to be demanding. “Why?” he simply asks. Why are you doing this? Rather than judge or accuse, his eyes—which seem to follow you wherever you go in the gallery—see into all unwarranted human suffering, raising the question of its meaning in the simplest, most elemental form. We wish the lips would part farther, to utter a word to which we could respond. For the mute, hurt gaze allows no self-justifying response, nor even a plea for forgiveness. It is life itself that is questioned: our human nature and the God who created it.
The French philosopher Jacques Maritain once spoke of poetry as “that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination…what Plato called mousiké.” In this sense one might well call the author of this work, Antonello da Messina, a poet and a poetic master of contemplation.
The artist was born Antonello di Giovanni di Antonio about 1430 (the details of his biography are unclear) in Messina, at that time part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. After an apprenticeship he traveled to Naples, where sometime between 1445 and 1455 he became a pupil of Niccolò Colantonio and learned the techniques of Flemish oil painting. It was a time when Spanish, Provençal, Flemish and Italian influences all mingled in Naples. Antonello also was exposed to the great Netherlandish art that the king patronized, probably including works by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.
By 1457 or so, Antonello had married in Messina, had a son and had begun to receive significant commissions. In the late 1460s he traveled to the mainland, perhaps journeying to Northern Italy and studying the work of Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, whose sense of volumetric proportions clearly influenced him. In time, Antonello became known for scenes from the Passion of Christ, Madonnas with the Child and secular portraits.
But it was a well-documented trip to Venice in 1475-76 that led to his greatest work—and to his major influence on such Venetian artists as Giovanni Bellini. In Venice Antonello painted the famous “Il Condottiere” (a three-quarter profile and an image of formidable resolution, now in the Louvre) and his masterpiece, the San Cassiano Altarpiece (a fragment of which is the pride of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna). Returning to Sicily, the artist combined Italian elegance and Flemish detail in his “Virgin Annunciate” (c. 1476), a mysterious, regal girl, and in a great Pietà (to which I will return). Antonello dictated his will in February 1479 and died a few months later.
‘Christ at the Column’
In these waning days of Lent, I turn to a second type of suffering Christ that Antonello developed after “Christ Crowned With Thorns.” It is Christ Bound to the Pillar, and the supreme example is arguably “Christ at the Column” (c. 1476-78, p. 24), in the Louvre. Here, with the column behind him, an anguished, bust-length Christ looks toward heaven as if in rapture. A braided crown of thorns sits on his thick auburn hair, drawing little blood; he has a light beard; a few delicately painted tears lie on his cheeks. The rope around his neck is knotted at the bottom center (adding to the illusion of depth), then falls over his right shoulder, behind his neck and down his left shoulder.
The desolation is extreme, but the body of the Lord suffers no disfigurement; the artist clearly chose psychological rather than merely physical revelation. The image draws us toward both heaven and earth, with a muted pathos unique to Antonello. The viewer, too, with the suffering Christ, looks for the mercy of God and for the fate of one’s fellow man. This is incarnation just before its final test.
The artist also painted three crucifixions. The simplest and most contemplative of these is a small votive panel (for private prayer), now in London’s National Gallery. While his other Crucifixions show the two thieves on either side of Jesus (not nailed to crosses but hung on trees), the London version shows only Jesus, a slender figure on a cross so high that he seems to float in the sky. Skulls surround the base of the cross. But Mary, to Jesus’ right, sits rapt in contemplation, while John, to the left, sits in prayer. You are bidden, humbly, to join them. Sit at the cross? you might ask. Yes, says the poet; imitate the mother and the apostle who will now be her son.
The ‘Dead Christ’
The startlingly contemplative mood also suffuses Antonello’s last painting, completed perhaps with the help of Jacobello: “Dead Christ Supported by an Angel,” which is sometimes called a Pietà, because the dead Christ is being mourned. One of the greatest treasures of the Prado in Madrid, this moderately sized panel has monumental effect. The dead subject sits almost upright in the center of the painting, the wound in his side still pouring blood; his head falls back, utterly helpless. Behind him, looking toward the viewer, a small angel weeps as he (implausibly) supports the Lord. Christ’s left hand falls into a space that is surrounded in the middle distance by skulls and bones. In the far background is the walled city of Messina, with its cathedral church and bell tower.
Here the depths of sorrow sound once more, but with a dignity and calm that draws us into the mystery. Stay; keep watch, you feel the painter say. This, in a searing yet serene image, is the revelation of sin and redemption all in one—and of love beyond telling.
I have never read that Antonello da Messina led a saint’s life. And there is often a gap (sometimes great) between an artist’s life and work. It is fairly certain that this artist was industrious in pursuing his painter’s profession and not averse to worldly recompense. But contemplating his panels, I felt a saintliness shining through. And what this artist offers us for Lenten prayer—or anytime—is saintly surely.