1000 words on Manet’s The Mocking of Christ (1865)
On view at the Art Institute of Chicago, alongside other mid-19th century paintings, one of only two religious paintings in Edouard Manet’s whole career, The Mocking of Christ (1865), more recently renamed to Jesus Mocked by Soldiers.
In approaching what is both the brightest and darkest painting in the room, the viewer first notices the central, brightly-lit, frontal figure, Christ, surrounded by three other male figures, more or less clothed. Painted with bold, thick, brushwork, Manet depicts a triangular-composed scene of what is known as the mocking of the “king of the Jews” before the crucifiction.
The beholder is forced to have multiple confrontations with Christ, the first of these confrontations is intense, immediate, and striking, however, as the viewer pulls back and surveys the picture in its entirety, and is confronted with the interactions of the figures, it becomes increasingly ambivalent and unresolved. The ambivalent relationships between the figures vary in distinct levels of the engagement with their actions, among themselves, and compositionally not only with Christ, but with the viewer as well.
The almost porcelain-toned glowing epidermis of Christ, makes the other bodies have the appearance of corpses. Though he is the brightest of them all, his flesh has clearly suffered the tragedy of time and reveals in between its cracks the truth of painting. Present throughout the majority of the surface of the painting, these cracks—some crevices, some fissures—are most noticeable, most pronounced, and most concentrated on the body of Christ.
Manet’s elimination of halftones creates the feeling of palpable, immediate presence of Christ. Although his physicality is undeniable, certain areas the contours have thinner layers of paint that reach an almost ghostly transparency. The contrast provided by the pitch black background and the over-exposed, scarcely illusionistic, rendering of the body immediately forces a confrontation between the viewer and the painting
Unlike other paintings addressing similar themes, the body of Christ, far from being idealized, is limpid, weak, anemic-looking. His feeble arms, tied together at the wrists with a rope, are stretched gracefully downward to our right. His head slightly tilts in the opposite direction. Unconcerned with his surrounding he stares up submitting himself not to the figures that encircle and harass him, but to something beyond their recognition, and ours. His feet, one laying flatly on the ground, the other with an elevated heel, have darkers tones, and although thick strokes are discerned the rendering is painstakingly blurry; the surface brush strokes seem to cover up evidence of the bruises from underneath. His partially crossed legs, leads our sight towards a figure huddling to his left.
Slightly cropped by the left edge of the canvas, this figure appears to have just arrived at the scene, or is ready to get up to move. His pose, that of one knee on the floor and the other bent with his thighs at a 45 degree angle to his chest, kneels next to Christ. A gesture that could describe an image of admiration and humbleness towards Christ, however, one is not to be deceived since this man is holding up the spear we can easily suspect will eventually give the last death blow.
This skin-colored shirted soldier whose bent body takes up half the vertical orientation of the canvas, seems considerably larger than the others, and appears closest to us almost protruding into the viewers space. His awkward relationship to the figure of Christ, beyond that of sheer scale and demeanor, is witnessed where the edges of his pants touch the edges of Christ’s legs, and it is in those interactions that perspective and depth is tampered with, that the figure or Christ, though centrally placed seems to recede
The figures behind him too engage with him, to our left, behind him, stands a half-hidden, semi-bowing, figure who stares at his face, almost in ashtonishment of his presence.
If anything the ideal presented by other paintings of similar subject matter is being deflated and transposed into something else. In a historical period in which such a subject matter had been exhausted, the painting cannot help but echo both Renaissance and Baroque painting, specifically 17th-century Spanish artists Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Zurbaran. A painting a few galleries down in the Art Intitute, Zurbaran’s The Crucifixion, could give us a good point of reference, of comparison. Both paintings have particular ways in which the rendering of the body of Christ and its surrounding is affected by the play of light and darkness, perspective and composition, physicality and spirituality. His bodily presence, in an altarpiece painting like The Crucifixion, provided for a spiritual experience, the effect, the physicality, materiality, presence of the Christ in a religious setting, but for Manet’s time his intention is different and so do his technical devices need to be. Though equally striking in its atmospheric effects, the experience of the Manet as opposed to the Zurbaran, never reaches a moment of extreme pity, anguish, mourning, hope nor adoration. Manet does not allow us to contemplate the painting passively, like the Zurbaran whose depth and theatricality consumes us, and instead Manet forces us, with every possible detail, to remember that we are viewing a painting composed of seemingly inconclusive fragments and effects. The textures of the different skins, the fiery-orange fur worn by one of the torturers behind him, the calluses on their barren feet, the leather straps, the men’s facial hair, and rough clothing all render a particular materiality that transcend even the realist paintings of Gustave Courbet before him.