Christ After the Flagellation

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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Christ After the Flagellation, 1665

By MEGAN GANNON

A rare moment, a solitary moment. Christ alone. He is not risen above his followers, or even in a powerful position. Christ appears as any other man bending down to pick up his garments.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo worked during the Spanish Counter Reformation as a painter primarily commissioned to paint religious works, yet throughout his life he holds on to a love of still-lifes. On one hand you have the religious Murillo, set with the task of demonstrating to the Spanish people how their individual pain does not compare to the sacrifices made by celebrated religious martyrs. Although on the other, you have the Murillo who cherished the common folk, with an exposed butt cheek or a few crushed egg shells.

Although Murillo’s Christ After the Flagellation lacks a subtle apple or dwindling candle, one still feels the still-life vibes. We know Titian for his beautiful colors and flawless skies, Caravaggio for bringing blood and lust into a painting without a single fleck of red, and now for Murillo we can not think of his paintings without pausing on his innate ability to effortlessly combine the light and dark.

With his Christ, Murillo casts a light that extends down from Christ’s torso to his illuminated thigh. Murillo parallels the light on Christ’s forward thigh in Christ’s front arm. By playing a game of peek a boo with the light, Murillo makes the viewer search for the points of reflection. For Murillo the casting of light is not a task simple added to illuminate shading, but to bring another dimension into the work.

Murillo’s approach to the distribution of the light is much like his approach to Christ. Contrary to artists who favored the spiritual aspects of Christ, Murillo settles in on the human. Christ’s posture demonstrates his vulnerability, his slightly sloped shoulders accompanied by his rigid back indicate that although he appears defeated... his back, his mind, his body are not broken.

Although Christ’s head is tilted downward, his eyelids float upwards towards the top of the canvas, in a bright light of ecstasy, a more subtle type of devotion. For if he extended his head he would lose sight of the clothes that lie before him. His garments ground him to the earth, to his suffering.

Murillo casts the white cloth that surrounds Christ as the center of the painting, yet due to Christ’s extended arms and hands the viewer’s eye drifts to the slightly, dirtier, rougher version of the white cloth. Indicating that although Christ may seem content with the brightly lit cloth he would rather wear the dirtier one. With the cloths bright and dull hues, Murillo references how Christ lives life in the bright light, and how all those consuming hues have led to him on his knees in this very moment.

Within the ripples of light, one sees the bruises starting to form around Christ’s forearm, upper back, and abdomen. Murillo does not hide the pain or make it the focus. He hints at the multiple lashings it would take to accumulate the bruising, building up the pain with each and every brushstroke.

Murillo’s Christ captures the intimacy of a Caravaggio, and the darkness of a Tintoretto. Besides the lighting and intimate shading I cannot get the posture out of my head. Christ bends slightly off center, off kilter. Off in his own space. Anchored only by his hands clutching the cloth before him.

By any comparison this painting is beautiful, but more than that it’s an artist’s work. You see Murillo. Yes, you see the church that commissioned it due to the subject matter, but Murillo makes it his own. Murillo proves that power does not reside in standing over others, but in the private moments that make us we are. He makes the statement that although you might not see the bruises at first glance, it does mean that they do not exist. He charges you to take the soiled cloth and your bruises and stand up with that rigid back of yours.

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