I stopped by the Courtauld one afternoon in 2002, when I was visiting London for a meeting and had a couple of hours to kill. I had never been inside the building, which is one of the great buildings along The Strand, where once upon a time the aristocrats of England all had their homes. The Bouts "Christ Crowned With Thorns" was the first painting that saw you as you entered the mediaeval section down in the crypt - sadly they have moved it to another part of the room, but back then it really was the first painting that saw you, even before you saw it; a pair of desperately sad eyes and a mouth half-open in astonishment, that simply invited you to transform it into poetry. Over the next two hours of wandering the many galleries, I did precisely that.
To listen to an audio recital of the poem, click here
The gallery website says of the painting:
Follower of Dieric Bouts
Christ Crowned with Thorns
Oil on panel
32.3 x 23.8 cm
The Courtauld Collection
This image, Christ Crowned with Thorns, from the Circle of Bouts represents the sixth station of the cross (the representation of Christ’s final hours). Both the subject and size of this work are indicative of the viewer’s devotion. In part, the intensity of this image results from our reaction to the blood and tears emanating from the figure, which is further emphasized by Christ’s penetrating gaze, engaging the empathy of the viewer.
Bouts was a successful Netherlandish painter of the fifteenth century. He had an extensive workshop and many followers who replicated this popular type of devotional imagery. This image was often joined with the Mater Dolorosa to form a diptych. The size of these images made them portable and accessible for private devotion.
I am Christ, watching, listening.
Not the Christ,
but Christ by a follower of Dieric Bouts -
Flemish school, born 1415, Haarlem;
“Christ Crowned With Thorns” the eponym -
crucified, or painted, circa 1475,
the last regenerative act of both our lives.
Christ in a red smock
with shouldered ringlets for payot;
a noble Christ
unvanquished by death,
neck tendons taut as nails,
the pose heroic without hubris -
Christ as I would wish to be depicted
except for the crown of thorns,
composed, it seems, of coral,
or some stale marzipan purchased in the Arab souk
behind the Via Dolorosa,
green as moss upon a static stone;
and all these tears,
crystallised, caramelised, an excess of tears,
tears designed to rise to pathos
but falling - as tears should - to bathos,
pouring from the stigmata of over-bloodshot eyes.
The other Christ -
a Della Francesca by the languid look of him,
all alabaster arms and skin like frankincense -
the Christ on the far wall,
(my altar ego, if you’ll forgive the pun),
some Tuscan fresco disimmured,
some Italianate triptych in the taste of Monte Cassino;
he does not watch the world, as I do,
he looks away -
histir panav, the Rabbis call it,
turning His countenance aside and letting evil enter -
two blind eyes like Pontius Pilate’s,
two tearlessly white eye-sockets
turned inwards on his self-absorption,
a God of insipid Love,
a God more focused on his inner pain
than on the boredom of eternity
or the careworn need for solace of humanity.
I am all face.
Two open eyes, staring at you, judging.
Countenance turned to shine on you,
to be, and bear, your burden.
The tears though are not mine - I never cried -
but each artist has the right
to paint his personal Crucifixion.
The tears are for you, my modern worshippers.
How shall I address you?
In the modern style, in slogans, soundbites?
You, the canons of commercialism
(or do I mean the clerics? the communicants?),
pacing in reverential silence
the wood-floored cloisters of this Courtauld Gallery
(it was never like this in the Temple -
all blood and bartering,
all stench of zealotry and incense;
but usury is still usury;
I still dream of driving the merchants from the marketplace).
You, the mendicants of materialism,
the bored, the pseud, the popish, the pontificating,
the bedesmen and the iconolaters,
(the death of God is a death in language too,
words genizahed like the Word itself).
You, the awe-struck and the fascinated,
the pious and the pompous -
all Mankind eventually walks before me.
You who have come here for a space of silence in the city,
for a stamp in the passport
of your journey towards adulthood,
to venerate Madonna for her line and form,
the angels for their chiaroscuro,
the saints for their grisaille,
the benefactors for the sheer scale of their benefactions,
the messianic Cortauld for his model of munificence…
You came to pass judgments, didn’t you?
Well I, Christ, I too came to judge.
Along with forgiveness and the shouldering of sin,
this is my designated role,
this eaves-dropping on your secret conversations,
this being an icon on your wall,
this watching as a mirror watches,
this reflecting you back upon yourselves,
this making my judgements upon your judgements,
I, the helmsman of your inner voyage,
paradigm of paradise,
Eternity in this underworld yields to deep thinking
(forgive these digressions;
I so rarely get the chance to speak
and one thought feeds another
as my teacher Rabbi Gamliel once said).
I am struck (for example)
that a gallery hosts paintings without contexts,
so a picture becomes a sculpture,
an object frozen in time and space,
integral only to itself,
shorn of its narrative and its relationships,
reduced - yes, I’m sure I do mean that - to eternity.
Gone the votive candles, the ringing angelus,
the susurrations from confession booths,
the ambient Gregorian, the pacing priests,
the hammering of nails into the master masonry
as builders pave the spiral path to God
(O but I love these puns - reliques,
in the style of midrash, of my Rabbinic training;
though you no doubt would call them Joyceian).
We who anyway were just
the mediaeval Piagetian paraphernalia of prayer
(that’s the sort of language game I mean;
Kohelet and King David would have been applauding;
the Word, they would have said,
is still alive, original, incarnate),
the atmosphere-engendering wall-hangings,
the aides to spiritual intensity
and the adornments of some Lady Chapel,
we are all that now remains,
hung in the wrong Temple,
icons to the wrong divinities,
Gone the flesh - we are the bones.
Gone the edifice - we are the ruins.
Gone the intent - we are the intensities.
In place of God - Man.
And which side of that equation will you place me on?
Aye, there’s the rub!
I am less racked by nails here
than ever I was on Calvary.
One stabbed through my back, like Judas,
and then the rope he also used to hang himself;
but here I hang much longer
than those three short hours of eternity.
Here I hang all day and every day
(except, of course, Bank Holidays and Christmas -
a charming irony),
tormented Jesus, scourged and speared,
though perhaps the torment you are witnessing
is less my torment
than the epiphany of the artist’s torment
in the making of me
(I mean, of course, the earthly artist,
not the divine creator)...
I wonder if those modern picklers in vinegar,
those dadaists of the formaldehyde cow,
also took their cue from Roman sponges?
Nor is this quite the underworld I had expected,
though it is subterranean enough,
gloomy as a Yom Kippur yeshiva.
It lives, of necessity, in limited daylight,
in shadows cast by chandeliers,
a deliberate absence of illumination.
(Here is a most Scholastic paradox:
too much light would harm the surfaces;
too much light also reveals too much interior).
The walls are deadened by paint and fingerprints
(the paint the same green as my thorns),
by the conflicting echoes of adjacent paintings
(I must say I find it rather disconcerting
to be surrounded by so many and such nude Madonnas),
and little white plaques
(mine no doubt reads IMRI)
like labels on a jar of Scopus olives
(thirty shekels pitted, more with stones).
This is no longer living Art
(though the Psalmist would adore my echo-lines,
my use of the parenthesis as counterpoint).
This is a shop of shadows,
a sarcophagus entombed in a museum
(the Italian who said that
looked a lot like Cerberus himself).
This is history
And though I long to have the rock rolled back,
to make hejira from this whiteless sepulchre,
the truth is
that you cannot steal my body from this tomb
because the eye of God protects it on closed circuits,
the arms of God contain it
in a grip invisible that screams at any touch,
(I have often wondered
how far history would have been affected
had Joseph of Arimathea
taken these same precautions at his tomb);
why, even my eternal corpus
is kept at mummy temperature by humidifiers,
though doubts have been expressed by certain Thomases
over the radioactive damage of electric light.
But I am safe here,
enwombed and entombed,
no longer living Art nor living God,
no longer myth nor legend;
but an item in a catalogue,
a world-wide web-site,
of the profit
not the Prophet.
I can’t say it’s the worst fate
that ever befell Man or God.
In the upstairs rooms -
Lely, Sassoferrato, Rubens, Brueghel -
religion is replaced by human vanity,
which is to say veneration for the Creator
by the cult of the created,
art purloined into the service of self-aggrandisement,
the great (and especially the smaller would-be great),
the good (and generally the genuinely not-that-good),
crying like tormented Jesuses:
“O me! O look at me!”
from a gilt frame twice life-sized.
Marvellous paintings - but at what price?
“I am Lorenzo Lotto by your leave...”
(you would need to win the lotto to acquire him!);
but in truth he is a gloomy, melancholy man,
not unlike my master Hillel
or that glum, dejecting John the Baptist,
all charcoal and ashes,
Jeremiac black on a black background -
and note the humanising skull
in the bottom left-hand corner,
hinting at Calvary-Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls,
but failing, in ebony and ravens,
even to tilt a nod at Resurrection.
Or take the works of Thomas Gainsborough
on the floor below the room of the Impressionists
(I have no gripe about Impressionism -
all that light, that life-enhancing, Mediterranean light),
a synonym for Mammon if there ever was one,
alabaster plagiarised no doubt from the Della Francesca,
all those porcine porcelain faces,
all that Hanoverian photographic art
informed by the slow aperture and fast shutter techniques
of Anthony Van Dyck.
Idolatry! Graven images! Treyf!
Blessed are the vain and wealthy
for they shall be transmuted into icons,
hung up for the edification of the servile classes,
masters and mistresses resplendent on the wall,
the lower castes cap-doffing in the gallery...
What is extraordinary is only that the Gainsboroughs
are not portrayed in red smocks,
with shouldered ringlets,
their fingers counting rosaries,
and crucifixes on their nail-taut tendons.
Five o’clock approaches,
time to shut up this shop of shadows.
Today, alone, I have watched four thousand of you,
hajis circling round and round the black-stone walls
of this false Temple filled with diptychs, triptychs,
altar-pieces, icons, frescos,
with plaster imitations of erstwhile marbles,
and for some reason ivories and faiences from Limoges
(the sacred art of Europe, 1300-1500,
so it says upon the door);
I have watched you, listened to you,
I, “Christ Crowned With Thorns”,
and you, uncertain how to celebrate this shrine of God-in-Art
and I confess
(I never did to Caiaphas, but will to you)
I am as much bewildered as amused.
Why are you worshipping me here,
you who never visit me at home,
you who never bend the knee,
you who never sing the litany or liturgy?
Why - what form of indulgence are you seeking?
You who study the semiotics of the labels
in order to glean the semiotics of the paintings,
reading the easier of what you think
are two parts of the same work,
learning a name, a date, a brief interpretation,
believing, with most perfect faith,
that now you understand,
that now you can speak with confidence
at dinner with the intellectuals,
that now you have achieved
a kind of symbiosis with the divine.
And what if I were to tell you
(I always was a rebel, a discomforter)
that my label is all wrong,
that I am neither IMRI
nor “Christ by a follower of Dieric Bouts”,
but Bouts himself, that follower of Van der Weyden,
that I am not 1475 but actually 1463,
that I am only a cartoon for the Resurrection
hung - yes, hung - in the Munich Pinakothek?
Would all that data cause transfiguration
in your lack of understanding of me?
You who would take home the memory
of this rare occasion of intensity,
a thread from my cloak or shroud,
You who speak of the great value of these paintings,
and mean capital,
You who read the donors’ plaques
as iconistically as you read the labels on the paintings.
You who are enamoured by the names of names
(but not the Name),
and do not understand philanthropy,
is best left egoless?
Why, why are you here?
"Ecce Homo" is published in "Welcome To My World, Selected Poems 1973-2013", The Argaman Press. Click here to purchase the book.
Copyright © 2014 David Prashker
All rights reserved.
The Argaman Press