Brief Thoughts on The Passion of Christ through Honthorst’s Eyes
Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to [the crowd], “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” (John 19:1-5 ESV)
Before Jesus was crucified, before He was buried, and before He rose from the dead, He was beaten and mocked. And He was beheld; beheld in a bloodied and weakened state by those who admired Him and those who wanted Him dead.
The Mocking of Christ by Gerrit van Honthorst (c. 1617 – 1620) depicts a subdued representation of the drama that unfolds in the Gospel of John. In the painting, a Roman soldier pushes the crown of thorns onto Christ’s head and blood unceremoniously forms around the wound. Honthorst does not present a gory scene, yet absence works to subtly evoke meditation on the physical suffering we do not see. We are visually ushered in to the mocking of Christ and invited to behold Him in a specific, sorrowful moment. If Honthorst’s interest is not the brutal treatment of the Savior, what is it?
Strong chiaroscuro illuminates Christ and casts the mockers in shadow; one soldier throws up his hand to hide the light of the flame from his face, bringing Jesus’ words in John 3 to mind: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” The most mesmerizing moment in the painting is the contrast in the behaviors and expressions of the central Roman soldier and Christ, who are connected by the scepter that the soldier is pushing into Jesus’ hand. The soldier’s laughing face is illuminated as he gazes directly at Jesus to see the reaction of the “King” whom he mocks. The brief connection between the two men formed through a single object and action is naught if we consider that from a Christian perspective, they are eternally connected. At the end of days, the tables will be turned as the soldier (and his companions) will be judged by the Person they so casually condemn.
The Jesus that Honthorst presents the viewer with does not have blood pouring down His body to evoke our sympathy for His state, and there is nothing about Him that suggests might or divinity. This Jesus humbly accepts the evils of man. Can the true Christ possibly be this weak? A diagonal formed by the torch and the scepter creates a void that invites our attention and participation; it is a visual crossroads of sorts. And it is here that Honthorst presents us with a challenge: to choose a side.