Violence and drama, Caravaggio’s The Flagellation of Christ

Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio), The Flagellation of Christ, 1607, oil on canvas, 286 x 213 cm (Capodimonte Museum, Naples, Italy) speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, looking at a large Caravaggio. This is “The Flagellation of Christ.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] This was made for a family chapel here in Naples. Caravaggio had just fled Rome. Having his usual bad temper, he got into a fight and actually murdered someone.

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] But was able to escape to Naples under the protection of one of the ruling families and stayed here hoping for a pardon from the pope.

Dr. Harris: [0:31] Caravaggio has painted Christ front and center. We have these stark contrasts of light and dark, this theatrical lighting where areas that are fully illuminated [are] right next to areas that are in complete shadow.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] It creates a sense of the veracity of volumes and masses, but it also allows the artist to focus our attention. There’s no background that’s unnecessary. It’s as if stage lights draw our attention to Christ, but also the three figures that surround and torment Him.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] This darkness that the figures are embedded in is so profound. It communicates a darkness to the human souls that could torture Jesus Christ in this way. We see one figure on the left especially who seems to take sadistic pleasure in holding the head of Christ, holding his hair so that he can steady Christ, whip him with the sticks that are in his right hand.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] The figure that we see down in the lower left is tying an additional bundle of sticks. Although not specifically mentioned in the four gospels that speak of Christ’s torture, the tying of the bundle, it becomes standard iconography in paintings of the Flagellation.

Dr. Harris: [1:45] As had the column that Christ is tied to. What I’m struck by is how the figures fill the frame, there’s so little space around them. On the other hand, a good third of the painting is empty at the top.

[2:00] There’s almost a sense to me of the lack of the presence of God here. We’re on earth, Christ is a man. His body is so palpable to us, as are the bodies of his torturers, that we almost forget except for the halo and the crown of thorns that we’re looking at a Biblical image from the four gospels.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] Caravaggio has done such an incredible job of expressing the vulnerability of Christ. The lack of any miraculous intervention at this moment produces an image that is terrifying.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] Well, we know that next will be Christ carrying the cross and ultimately the terrible suffering of the Crucifixion. The pose of Christ’s body is so unstable here. We have the figure on the right who’s tying him to the column. We can see the bands of rope around his arms. We see his left foot kicking at Christ’s calf to push him over, to make his body unstable.

[3:02] At the same time, the curvature of his upper body, the way that his head hangs almost lifeless, reminds me of Michelangelo’s Pietà. We have this foreshadowing of Christ’s death.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] The only stable form is the column. There is a pyramid composition, but it’s warped. It’s dynamic.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] When I first approached the painting, I was confused by the jumble of limbs at the bottom, legs and arms and feet. It took a minute to clarify what belongs to who above, but there is a clarity and focus on Christ’s suffering and that crown of thorns at the very center of the painting.

[3:43] As always, Caravaggio is giving us figures who look like they come from the streets. We’re not just talking realism here, but a gritty street realism that Caravaggio brings to biblical subjects, making them so real and palpable.

[3:58] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Violence and drama, Caravaggio’s The Flagellation of Christ," in Smarthistory, May 4, 2023, accessed June 14, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/violence-and-drama-caravaggios-the-flagellation-of-christ/.