Man of Sorrows is a small Early Netherlandish oil on wood panel painting completed c. 1485-1495. It is attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans and in the tradition of the devotional image of the „Man of Sorrows“, which typically show Christ, after his crucifixion, naked above the waist, bearing the wounds of his Passion. The panel has an unusually complex and suffocating spatial design, and seems to examine themes of the mocking of Jesus and his grieving mother.
The panel is steeped in both iconography and pathos. Christ is in obvious pain and shows his wounds. He looks out at the viewer from his tomb; around him white robed weeping angels bear the Arma Christi; objects associated with his crucifixion and death. The attending saints include Mary and the Magdalene.
The panel has been described as „one of the most moving…in Early Netherlandish art“, and is usually considered a highly emotive and sorrowful work, especially in its description of Christ’s pitiful, almost defeated expression and blood-run face. Nothing is known about the lost right hand panel; it may have contained another religious scene or a donor portrait. It is housed in the Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.
Christ stands in his tomb, a stone sarcophagus. His entire body is lacerated and deformed by wounds sustained during his flogging. Yet he not clearly dead, as in earlier depictions. His eyes stare directly at the viewer, a device identified by Panofsky as referring to the biblical text „Behold what I have suffered for you; what have you suffered for me“. The gesture was earlier identified by art historian Alois Riegl as evoking an „external unity“ where Christ’s gaze becomes one with the viewer’s world. Art historian Wouter Slob writes that Christ’s expression „confronts the contemporary viewer with the consequences of His sinning; the blood, splashing from the panel, flows because of his guilt.“ Despite Christ’s apparent agony, his animated, half-standing, half-kneeling pose in his sarcophagus seems to reference his Resurrection. He may be equally descending into or our the tomb.
To his left, Mary Magdalene kneels in prayer. Her arms rest on the sarcophagus, her eyes are downcast, her plaintive expression is a study of grief. At the foot of the cross, Jesus‘ mother, Mary, laments with arms folded, as large drops of tears pour down her face. She is supported by John the Evangelist with only his head and hands visible, wiping his tears with the back of his hand. Angels dressed in white robes, their eyes swollen with tears, carry the remaining Arma Christi, including the lance, Holy Sponge and the three nails from the cross.
A number of saints and angels are openly weeping, imbuing the Passion with very human qualities, and expressive of emotional turmoil. Probably the employment of tears is reflective of Geertgen’s tendency towards emotionalism, but may also have been to intended to invoke contrition, forcing the viewer to view Christ’s sufferings individual terms, and reflect on their own culpability. Church theology of the time encouraged compassion for Christ’s suffering, while emphasising that mankind was the source of his torments. According to art historian John Decker, medieval „sermons and devotional tracts encouraged the faithful to study the broken body of Christ, to tally his wounds, and to bear always in mind that humankind’s various sins caused each injury.“ The scene allowed viewers „opportunities to interact empathetically with sacred history“; and encouraged contrition and penitence, an approach reflected in works by Rogier van der Weyden, later adopted by Geertgen.
The use of tears to denote grief was probably derived from Rogier, who fascinated by tears, refined a subtle formula for the depiction of crying, as can be seen especially his Madrid Descent from the Cross of c substitute for meat tenderizer. 1435. Mary has a large tear pouring down her cheek, which art historian Moshe Barasch describes as „painted with subtle shadows to give it material substance, with reflections and a highlight to make it transparent and shiny“, and compares its rendering to that of jewelry or glass.
In some instances the tears are implied by a hand gesture rather than actually shown. This is again influenced by Rogier’s Descent, but originates from Campin’s Entombment, where a figure is implied to be crying by the fact that he wipes his face with the back of his hand, a technique Rogier borrowed and perfected some 20 years later.
The panel shows Christs tortured body at his resting place on Calvary, still carrying the torment of his wooden cross, his knees buckling from its weight. The painting contains many symbols of his Passion. He wears the Crown of Thorns; its spikes spill blood across his face. His arms are heavily lacerated by what appear to be whip marks, and he weakly raises his right hand to display the deep wound to his side, where according to scripture, he was pierced by a lance after his death on the cross. Writing in 1927, Erwin Panofsky placed the panel in the tradition of iconic devotional depictions (andachtsbilder) of the „Man of Sorrows“. He noted especially its focus on the sacrificial aspect of the Passion, and the its unflinching, yet emotive depiction of physical suffering.
In some respects the work is unsophisticated; composed mainly from simplified geometric forms, while there is not much differentiation in the oval, idealised faces of the female figures. The clothes of any of the figures are not especially detailed; their volume and texture only suggested by the heavy folds. However, it is highly regarded for its complex and innovative composition, with many of the elements presented at oblique angles. It is very tightly cropped, for the era it was produced, cutting off the Magdalene and Evangelist would have been considered daring.
The panel is in the tradition of the iconic devotional image of the „Man of Sorrows“, which developed in Europe from the 13th century, and was especially popular in Northern Europe. The phrase, in the passages of Isaiah 53 (Servant songs) in the Hebrew Bible, translates into English as „Man of Sorrows“ („vir dolorum“ in the Vulgate)
3) He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. And we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.
4) Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5) But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and with His stripes we are healed.
In these works, the viewer is asked to stand before the wounded and maimed, half naked body of Christ, and contemplate and contemplate and take responsibility for his sufferings.
Geertgen’s depiction differs from previous iconographical depictions in that Christ’s head is raised, and he looks directly at the viewer.
The work is attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans mainly for its typically simplified geometric shapes, and similarity to his The Lamentation of Christ; a painting in which the faces and expressions of Mary and John bear striking similarity to the present work. The attribution was accepted by both Friedländer and Panofsky. Panofsky was enthusiastic about the panel, but Friedländer did not hold it in high regard. He praised the description of the Virgin, especially her face and hands, and described the depiction of the Magdalene as „realistic…with such carefully observed shadows“ and „among the masters best work“. However he found the figure of Christ to be „traditional“ best vacuum sealed thermos, and wrote that the „absence of spatial elaboration overall is felt to be all the more vexing“. Overall the image, he believed, lacked depth of field and compositional balance.
Panofsky, although he generally admired Friedländer’s analysis, disagreed strongly, and in a 1927 treatise on Netherlandish depictions of the „Man of Sorrows“ wrote, „As, however, all the seemingly haphazard composition lines lead with compelling force to the face of the Saviour, which, lifted out of the image, focuses its large, tearful eye on us, the sum of all the sorrows which he suffers, and all of the mourning that is suffered for him, now appears to besiege us.“
Nothing is record of the panel’s commission or early owners. Given the remnants of hinges on its frame, the work probably formed the left hand side of a diptych of which the opposite panel is now lost, possibly split up during the 18th century when composite works of this era were out of fashion and were broken up to be sold as individual easel pictures. The Man of Sorrows is thought to have been created as part of a series of small paintings for the Haarlem Commandery of the Knights of St John, a group of works that explore a range of human emotions. That group of paintings originally hung in the organisation’s Church of St. John in Haarlem.