The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook)

The Hours of Joanna I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (The London Rothschild Prayerbook) f. 23r, Derision of Christ


f. 23r, Derision of Christ

As mentioned earlier, the iconography used for the terce hour in the office of the cross is usually the scourging. However, it is not uncommon to find, as in the case of the Hours of Joanna of Castile, the mockery of Christ after he appeared before Caiphas, according to the Gospels of St Mark (14: 65) and St Matthew (26: 67), when the high priest’s servants attacked the Lord, spat in his face, blindfolded him, struck him and mocked him by asking him to prophesy who had hit him. The miniature shows a brutal and highly moving scene of the Lord, bare-footed, with his hands crossed and tied, sitting on a bench with his head completely covered by a cloth suffocating him –a feature which appeared as early as the 14th century instead of the blindfold– about to be struck by those around him including one of Caiphas’s servants, Malchus according to the Speculum humanae salvationis, i.e. the man whose ear was cut off by St Peter. Some of them are depicted with their mouth rudely open, an unruly gesture in medieval iconography indicating social inferiority and moral excesses, or smiling and showing their teeth to indicate aggressiveness and ferocity . Others, mainly soldiers, who should not appear in this episode, armed with spears and halbers, merely watch the scene complacently either inside or outside the Sanhedrin.

The iconographical theme of the first mockery of Christ is not very common, although it appeared very early around the year 600, in the illustration of Gospels such as those of St Augustine, between the scene of Caiphas and the interrogation before Pilate. The theme continued evolving in the East whilst in the West it was not found until the first half of the 11th century in miniatures by the Echternach school, in the Golden Gospels of Henry III, dated 1043-1045 (Escorial, Library of the San Lorenzo el Real Monastery, Cod. Vitr. 17, f. 82r) to be precise. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that the first mockery, with the characteristic motifs of the servant striking his face, and Christ blindfolded or with his head covered –which became increasingly common– and his hands tied and Caiphas’s servants scorning him, became common as an independent theme highlighting the patience of the Lord defenceless before the brutality of his tormentors.

Surrounding the painting is the usual, flower-strewn border. However, in this instance, the flowers depicted are almost all columbines, two of which are in a blue and white ceramic jug bearing the anagram of Christ, “yhs”, in reference to the Passion, providing a meditative meaning that complements the surrounding scene. It must, therefore, be remembered that the aim of depicting the cycle of Passion in detail throughout the short office of the cross is related to what is known as “empathic devotion” and the devotion to the body and human nature of Christ (and, therefore, to his sufferings and the sins of mankind) that developed in the late Middle Ages. Similar images appeared forcefully in the 13th century in works by Margaret of Oingt and Angela da Foligno. The 14th century saw a boom in forms of religiousness whose maximum literary expression took the shape of meditations on the Life of Christ and influenced the art of “visualising” the Passion in that period to a considerable extent. In keeping with the inheritance of their founder, the Franciscans emphasised the theory and practice of devotion to Christ and the Passion. The activity of that order, whose teachings addressed all levels of society, contributed to developing the devout treatment of the Passion in which the compassionate directions of meditation, stimulated by methodical thought about more concrete details of Christ’s life and Passion, tended to replace more abstract moral standards. The appearance of opuscules narrating the Passion is part of this development. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the practice of meditating on the Passion and the increase in its narrative aspect were stimulated by wave upon wave of devout prayer, moving across the German zone and the Netherlands, corresponding to the devotio moderna.

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