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The Bearing of the Cross by Christ

Passion Story, Image 101

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Audio transcription

His gaze pierces marrow and bone: Jesus is on his way to Golgatha, a hangman’s assistant drags him forward by the rope. The thorns in his crown that he has been crowned with in ridicule have deeply cut into his forehead. Blood flows. Jesus is the only one in the crowd in this painting who looks directly towards the viewer. The cross that he has to carry to the place of the skull called Golgatha weighs heavy. Simon of Cyrene, who is forced to help Jesus, appears reluctant. The expressions of the faces of the soldiers as well as the onlookers in this scene come across as deviant. Even the children who are willfully throwing stones at Jesus don’t show any compassion with the maltreated. Maria, Maria Magdalena and John look rather.

The question “Who has struck you thus?” that Johann Sebastian Bach poses in the choral of his St. John Passion clearly comes to the fore when looking at this painting. It is a question to Jesus: how can it be that you have to take this upon you? Who has arranged it? The choral provides an irritating response in the second stanza: “I, I”. The repeated self-address underlines that Christ has become human. He dies as God’s son in the service of all humankind so that they will rise from the dead with him. In multiple ways, Bach’s choral emulates Christ’s journey from torment to his resurrection. The harmony in the words “beaten” (“geschlagen”) in the first stanza and “sins” (“Sünden”) in the second is dissonant. The music ends in harmony.  Torture and anguish are followed by resurrection. The crucifixion fulfills the Council of Salvation.

Full Length Music

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
„Who has struck you thus“
“St. John Passion”, BWV 245
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Details

The Bearing of the Cross by Christ (1437),
Hans Multscher,
Fir wood,
141.1 × 151.0 cm

Jörg P. Anders

Detail, Rough Figures

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

There are all these heavy, rough, rustic figures, not just the villains, but also the many soldiers and the half-naked children who are throwing stones. So they’re doing what kids do when the crowd roars, having chosen a victim. They participate in the stone throwing. Yet when you look at Mary and John and Christ, they are equally rough. This roughness is a characteristic of this painter. In contrast to many other art works that at that time were still dominated by tender subtleties, Multscher presents the figures as rough. He wants to make them appear life-like. And this has the effect that they come across as people like you and me, as opposed to the fairytale magic world of art around 1400. They are taken from real life.

Detail, Gigantic Christ

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

When we look at the bearing of the cross, Christ appears gigantic. The painter has no difficulty to ignore the scale. Because Christ is bent under the cross, his head is lower than the bystanders, but imagine he would stand upright, he would be taller than the others. So very clearly he is the main figure in his grey-violet robe, his Passion robe, which serves as a great contrast to the colorful crowd around him. And then we see this mean henchmen, especially the one in front with his protruding veins, or this one with the huge chin. You can tell, he isn’t presented as a friendly character, tall as he is, he forms the counterpart, the mean guy.

Detail, Jesus´s Gaze

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Audio transcription

From an interview with Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie and Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

What immediately jumps out is Jesus Christ’s gaze. He is the only one in the painting who is looking out at the viewer. He seems to be posing us a question: On which side would you stand if you were in this painting? And at the same time he tells us: “I do this for you, for you and your sins. I, Jesus, take this suffering upon myself in order to redeem you from your sins.” And this builds a wonderful bridge to Bach’s choral, which by the way features in both of Bach’s two great Passions, the Matthew and the John Passion. At first, the blindfolded Jesus is beaten and ridiculed: “who has beaten you? If you are Jesus you should know.” But in the Passion, this question is serious: How can it be that you have to take this suffering upon yourself? The response follows suit in the second stanza in the John Passion with the two first syllables: “I, I”. 

[Music.]

We are therefore directly addressed, even 2000 years after the events of this scene, which tells us that Jesus still takes on this suffering for humanity today. It’s clear that this was a central question for Bach in the Passion, which explains why it features twice in the two Passions. Particularly impressive is the dissonant harmony into which the word “beaten”, “geschlagen”, is set, and which in the course of this stanza resolves into pleasure and harmony, through the Passion all the way to salvation and resurrection.

The Bearing of the Cross by Christ
Gemäldegalerie
Main floor, Room I

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