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Frans Francken the Younger

Christ on the Road to Calvary

Panel: 34 x 58 cm

introduction

This is a painting by the master Frans Francken the Younger from Antwerp, whose complex composition portrays a subject from the New Testament: Christ on the road to Calvary. A vast, jostling crowd accompanies Jesus, placed in the centre of the panel. He is kneeling on the ground, leaning on his hand and carrying his heavy cross on the road leading to Golgotha, pictured in the background. It was here, on the "place of the skull" (its meaning in Greek), that he would crucified with the two thieves, brought in a horse-drawn cart on the right, with their crosses more to the fore. Simon of Cyrene, wearing a small blue cap, helps the victim of torture to carry his load while St. Veronica kneels and holds out a cloth to wipe the Messiah’s face. A dense crowd, which has come to watch the event, floods out of a fortified tower on the left. A sign above the raised portcullis bears the emblematic motto of the Roman Empire, “SPQR”, Senatus Populusque Romanus. This is the palace of Pontius Pilate, where Jesus was sentenced to death.

Characters in the foreground have their backs to us because, like us, they are watching the scene. Here, Francken draws inspiration from the Gospels which tell of Christ's encounter with the holy women on the road to Calvary, retaining the scarlet cloak worn by the convicted man. He also refers to the Christian liturgical tradition of Good Friday listing the Stations of the Cross – this being a summary of the fifth and the sixth, with Simon of Cyrene and St. Veronica. The Franciscans brought this tradition from Italy in the 14th century but it wasn’t until 1731 that Pope Clement XII authorized the creation of figurative stations of the cross in churches.

There are many paintings by Francken II on the theme of the road to Calvary (Moscow, Rouen, Quimper, Dole, Princeton, etc.). The presence of a large gathering, Roman horsemen and onlookers along the roadside are recurring elements, as is the motif of Christ suffused with light, falling under the weight of the cross, with one hand on a small mound of earth, accompanied by St. Veronica holding out a cloth. A version in Louvain is a particularly fine example, especially regarding the complex arrangement of the crowd in a long, winding procession, going from left to right, marking the start of the ascension of Golgotha. This highly dynamic layout is further enhanced in the painting we are presenting owing to the incredible number of protagonists that Francken manages to arrange harmoniously in the background, contrasting with the stasis of the holy group. The origin of this formal repertoire lies in Christ Carrying the Cross by Raphael. Francken copies some of the positions and the version in Louvain is very close to the Italian model. If we search further into the beginnings of the motif, Christ Carrying the Cross by Dürer dated 1498-99, which is taken from an engraving by Martin Schongauer on exactly the same theme, provides the elements that inspired the Italian master a decade later, and Francken the century after that. Note in Dürer’s engraving the position of the fortress on the left from which a compact crowd emanates, or St. Veronica attending to Christ. These ingeniously placed motifs all assist in the dramatic and eloquent narration of the biblical episode, constituting an iconographic tradition that painters drew inspiration from throughout the ages.

Frans Francken II exploited all the themes of genre painting in vogue at the beginning of the 17th century. He excelled in the portrayal of historical, mythological and religious subjects, and our painting emphasizes his mastery of the latter. He surpassed his father’s teachings and his meticulous manner, and his vigorous brushstrokes and bright and sparkling colours are instantly recognizable. His work is peopled with groups of seated women surrounded by children and men dressed in oriental clothing, who are all watching and are witness to the action taking place. The master demonstrates his taste for the sumptuous, exoticism and the picturesque, complying with the preferences of an enlightened clientele avid for entertainment. Hence, in our painting, elegant horsemen in Roman livery with Roman helmets and swirling capes rub shoulders with gypsies with geometric-patterned covers and flat straw hats, as well as peasants and folk returning from the market, one of whom is carrying poultry in his hand and in his wicker basket. This incursion of the everyday world into scenes of an exceptional nature is frequent and the artist from Antwerp follows the tradition of his illustrious predecessors such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Gillis Mostaert, Herri Met de Bles and the Brunswick Monogrammist.

Frans Francken’s style has been compared to that of one of his contemporaries, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625). The latter is known to have painted a Crucifixion dated 1594, bathed in a stormy light, the symbol of Christ’s imminent death and a pretext for an impressive chiaroscuro effect. The same brilliance can be seen in this work and in Francken’s regarding the organisation of a large procession, the ideal medium for adding touches of bright colour to the panel, thus rhythmically guiding the viewer’s gaze across the planes. Jan is also responsible for a version of The Preaching of St. John the Baptist dated 1598, adapted from his father’s model and used by his brother Pieter the Younger. Here we find the group of gypsies with covers and flat hat that Francken places in prime position in his road to Calvary. He also adopts the walker and his decorated beret but moves him to the right, at the foot of a tree where onlookers are perched. These picturesque elements, i.e. the peasants’ clothing, place the biblical episode in the context of Flanders of Francken’s day, and it is easy to understand why they appealed to this artist who liked to insert the trivial into the exceptional.
Frans Francken wasn’t seeking to innovate in his portrayal of Christ on the Road to Calvary, of which he painted many versions. On the contrary, he drew inspiration from the pictorial tradition of the 15th and 16th centuries while adding picturesque elements that bore witness to his era and culture. Art-lovers of his day greatly appreciated his artistic talent, as do today’s collectors.

Provenance :
Private collection, Spain