Christ on the way to Calvary

Sevilla, Last quarter of the 15th century

Oil on panel
107,5 by 84 cm

Provenance: Portugal, Bustorff Silva collection (label on the back)

This panel, which may have been a predella compartment, depicts one of the Passion episodes, where Jesus is on his way to Calvary to be crucified. Christ is pictured in the middle, carrying the cross, which is resting on his back while he is holding on to the transom. His face is arranged almost in the very middle of the pictorial plane, just where the two sections of the cross meet. The weight of the wooden beams forces him to flex his body, and the effort can be seen in his face, which despite its serene appearance belies evident fatigue. Jesus is barefoot and is dressed in a reddish robe with numerous broken folds, in the Flemish tradition. He is wearing the crown of thorns on his head and we can see how his brow is bathed in blood. The nimbus, which has been executed using gold leaf, presents punch-marked decorations and a black outline. The scene takes place in a simple outdoor setting, of which all we can see is the greyish ground with limited vegetation and a little green mound, while the background is a gold colour, pictured between two arches that make up the bluish reserve where the decorative wooden architectural motif would have been.

The viewer cannot fail to be struck by the large number of soldiers, bearing picks, spears and other weapons that enable them to martyrize the Son of God and hinder his progress. One of these is pictured carefully holding on to a piece of rope with a noose passed over Christ’s neck. Under his armour we can see the ruffled tails of a white undershirt sticking out, fluttering elegantly. A second soldier is hooking his leg over the upright of the cross, while preparing to strike Christ on the back with a garrotte. He is wearing a coat of mail, painstakingly executed in light and shade. A third soldier is bearing a banner on which we can make out illegible inscriptions, with gold crowns above them, while yet another soldier is holding a bulky red shield, with gold trim, where we can read an inscription that has been partially lost. The rest of the troops are arranged in different parts of the composition in varying poses.

Christ on the way to Calvary is one of the most common episodes from the Passion cycle, and one of the most explicit when it comes to the suffering Christ went through. The story appears in all four Gospels (Mathew 27: 31-33, Mark 15: 20-22, ​Luke 23: 26-32 and John 19: 16-18). These scenes of heightened drama sought to move the faithful who prayed before them. This is clear from Jesus’ bloody face, and the cruelty and violence to which the Son of God is subjected, being tied by the neck and dragged along like livestock[1]. The violence and brutality of the torturers is explicitly described in the psalms and evangelical texts, being the subject of numerous subsequent Christocentric sources, which went so far as to compare the torturers with animals. In the case of the scene we are dealing with here, showing Christ surrounded by Roman soldiers, some of them frenzied, the words of Psalm 21 read: “circundederunt me canes multi” (many dogs surrounded me), stopping Mary from getting near her Son[2]. It is also extremely significant that all the positive figures who tended to be by Jesus’ side have disappeared, such as Mary and St. John the Evangelist, Simon of Cyrene and Veronica.

The painter has been painstaking in his depiction of armour and helmets, notable for the brilliant reflections which bear witness to his skills and penchant for the Northern European approach. It is particularly significant that many of the centurions, pictured in Medieval military dress, have their faces either entirely or partially concealed, heightening their negative effect. The painter sought to hide their faces, depicting them with their backs to us, presenting them as traitors. Saying that, the clearest case is the only figure who is not a centurion. He is pictured on the left of the composition in a white and red cap, raising his right leg while he appears to be scratching his leg or adjusting his breeches. The clothing he wears heighten his negative aspect, a tasselled tunic decorated with red and yellow rhombuses and triangles, two colours which were commonly associated with the Jews in the Middle Ages[3]. Furthermore, the fact that he is pictured entirely from the back could be an allusion to the image of the fool, he who does not recognize the word of the Gospel and denies the divine nature of the Son of God[4].

The style suggests the authorship of Juan Sánchez de San Román, from whose brush two further panel works have survived, signed in this case, depicting a Calvary with Saints and Donor from Seville Cathedral, and a Christ Man of Sorrows preserved at the Museo del Prado. In the former we can identify faces that are comparable with some of those from our panel, such as that of St. John the Evangelist who, in terms of position and facial features, could be linked to the soldier who is seen holding up his face in the work we are examining here. Mary Magdalene’s face, meanwhile, presents features reminiscent of those of the soldier holding the shield. As regards the Prado panel, its odd format (it is a devotional work) precludes us from making any valid comparisons. Sánchez de San Román has also been linked to a series of panels preserved at the church of San Andrés in Baeza (Jaén)[5], where apart from finding convincing parallels for the face of Christ, we see that towards the top of some of the compartments there is the same blue reserve left for the wooden architectural motifs. Finally, and due to its state of preservation, we cannot make any valid comparisons with the mural painting of the Annunciation from the monastery of San Isidoro del Campo (Seville), also signed[6].













[1] Marrow 1979, pp. 163-164; Velasco 2018d.

[2] Marrow 1977, p. 174.

[3] Pastoureau 1989; Velasco 2018c.

[4] Philip 1953.

[5] Serrera, 1987, p. 83.

[6] Respaldiza 2018, pp. 549-550, fig. 16.14.