Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Christ of the Emerald Icons 1600c.

 English School 

The Christ of the Emerald Icons,  English School
Oil on oak panel
17th Century
22 1/4 x 22 3/4 inches 56.5 x 57.8 cm (without frame)
The collection of Christopher Gibbs Esq., Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire.
Arguments can be mustered, in the instance of the present larger panel, for its use by either Protestants or Catholics. For the former one might suggest that its sheer size, against that of the smaller panels, would make it an improbable object for clandestine recusant worship. In its favour as a Catholic icon, however, one might draw evidence from the motifs depicted around the frame.

It is the frame that makes the painting an especially remarkable object. The survival of English religious art of this period is, as has been noted above, extremely rare. That the panel should still be within its original frame is doubly remarkable. This frame, as was customary with devotional subjects in northern Europe at this date, illustrates the themes implicit in the principal subject. The focus of adoration is the true image of Christ in the act of benediction. Around the frame are the Instruments of the Passion and other emblems relating to Christ''s betrayal and Resurrection.

Clockwise from the inscription at the top of the frame these are: the thirty pieces of silver; the sudarium; the pillar against which Christ was flogged, topped by the cock that signalled St Peter''s denial; the basin and towel used by Pilate in washing his hands; a palm, referring, perhaps, both to the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and, as with martyrs, to his death; the shroud; the empty tomb; the scourge; the sword, lantern and brazier that relate to the unkept watch and arrest in Gethsemane and St Peter's attack on one of the arresting soldiers. Above in crescendo are the most immediate symbols of the Passion: the vinegar sponge and the lance; the cross itself, and the meticulously rendered tools of crucifixion and last the Crown of Thorns. At the very top is a scroll inscribed Ego Via Veritas et Vita. At the bottom a scroll gives the image''s authority, in a form curiously divorced from the traditional association with the Great Sultan: THIS PICTUR IS THE SIMILITUDE OF OUR LORD IESUS/ CHRIST, AS HE DID WALKE UPON THE EARTH, AND WAS SENT/ BY PUBLIUS LENTULLUS TO TIBERIUS EMPEROUR OF ROOME,/UNDER WHOM CHRIST DID SUFFER.

It is possible to see this imagery as part of a specifically Catholic meditation on the suffering of Christ, as directed by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola. These exercises, prescribed as a course of private meditations, gained considerable popularity among Catholics on the Continent during the course of the later sixteenth century. The Spiritual Exercises were among a number of elements that influenced Catholic thinking and aesthetics as the Church sought ways to combat the initial advances of Protestantism. Like the forms of art and music that were to be endorsed by the Counter-Reformatory Council of Trent, they promoted a highly spiritual and emotional response to doctrine. It was intended that the worshipper's conception of religion would become a particularly intense and personal one, and thereby that it would be placed far beyond any Lutheran contradiction.

If this is the case, there is some remove from organised Jesuit thinking, as one might expect from an object made in England. The assemblage of objects around the frame is barely chronological, although there is the sense of a narrative progression from Judas' thirty pieces of silver to the Crown of Thorns. The preoccupation with the instruments of Christ's torment and crucifixion does seem to indicate Counter-Reformatory thinking. The nails, hammer and pincers are depicted with some care, and were a specifically suggested focus for Jesuit meditation. The nails are employed in Italian painting of this date as a means to shock and engage the viewer, prominently illustrated in works such as Annibale Carracci''s Dead Christ Mourned 1604 (London, National Gallery).
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.