Jusepe de Ribera's "Crowning with Thorns," circa 1620
Incredibly, Dallas’ Meadows Museum is sometimes overlooked by art habitués. To be candid, religious subject matter poses issues for many people. They find it reminiscent of beliefs they deem archaic and no longer relevant.
However, no matter what your spiritual beliefs — or lack thereof — the “Treasures from the House of Alba” exhibition includes work that is extraordinarily rich. Some of it comes to us via a spiritual context, and other pieces are of historical interest. The latter includes Christopher Columbus’ Logbook (circa 1492), portraiture and other secular items. An array of 130 paintings, drawings, tapestries and decorative items have exited Spain, where they are typically housed in three separate palaces, and remarkably, they’re in Dallas and on view in the galleries on the museum’s second floor.
One work, Crowning with Thorns, painted by Jusepe de Ribera in 1620, is revelatory in ways that might not immediately be apparent. After all, the subject matter is one of the mysteries of the Roman Catholic meditations that form the rosary. This alone is reason to send nonbelievers fleeing in droves to entertain themselves in ways that are infinitely more accessible. What the painting portrays is an instance of mocking. The proclaimed “king” ostensibly deserves a crown and, thus, Roman soldiers deliver a version of the royal accoutrement that is the obverse of the luxe, jeweled variety. The scriptural notation is found in the book of Matthew: And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put [it] upon his head … and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! And they spit upon him, and took the reed, and smote him on the head … and led him away to crucify [him].
One need not believe in the literal events of the New Testament to understand the nature of insult. It’s unfortunately part of everyone’s life, from entrepreneurs and politicians to educators and even children. We all know what it’s like to be perceived as less than we are. Sometimes people’s talent, intelligence, good-heartedness and woundedness are simply unseen. Or, worse, resented. We all experience moments when it seems that we’re publicly “stripped” of our genuine self and made to suffer at the hands of people who are cruelly intent on inflicting injury.
The point is: Ribera’s painting doesn’t have to be viewed as a literal event. It’s most powerful when amplified as a narrative. Then it expands with the freedom to move in ways that are psychologically rich. If art is merely relegated to the literal, it can never be transformative. Therefore, all art needs to be seen in terms of analogy and metaphor, because, that is the way images become fully resonant and educative.
Note, for instance, that the men lowering “the crown” don’t touch it. They use a device that allows them to remain unharmed. In other words, they inflict a pain that they would never endure themselves. They not only mock the figure (figura) of Christ; they are cowards unwilling to suffer even the smallest thorny prick. There’s wisdom in this, whether the depicted scene is taken literally or not. Novalis, the German poet and philosopher (1772 – 1801), said, “The seat of the soul is where the inner and outer worlds meet.” That’s exactly what this is: A public (outer) event is functioning as an aperture that exposes inner suffering. We witness a powerful moment of “soul work,” as it is termed by some contemporary psychologists. And, if we’re sufficiently sentient and brave enough to admit it, we’ve all been insulted. We’ve all experienced humiliation at the hands of those who would never endure the treatment they mete out. (If you need evidence, spend a scant five minutes looking at the comments on YouTube.)
Lastly, I’m reminded of a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. The question is posed: “If thou be a king, where is thy crown?” The reply? “My crown is in my heart, not on my head; / Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones, / Nor to be seen: my crown is called content, / A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy.”
It’s a remarkable response, not to mention one worth pondering. Thus, the image of the Ribera painting serves us well. It’s the ultimate version of a searing insult and a crown that is ultimately found in the region of the heart. Again, one need not be literal about the image; if we let the narrative unfold, it’s apparent that metaphor is the most apt means for understanding truth. Myth (not a literal sensibility) gives us the means to connect with the mystery that we all are. And that is the place where Novalis’ “inner” and “outer” meet. For those with Henry VI’s version of a crown — in the heart — this will be recognized as an instance of rare experiential insight. It’s what we’re meant to enjoy if we’re fully evolved beings capable of transmuting suffering into wisdom.
And Ribera, like all great artists, speeds the process rather than inhibiting it. The current exhibit at the Meadows has much to teach us all. If you deny yourself the pleasure of witnessing this profound collection of work, you’re missing out on excavating your own “crown” — you know, in that place right behind your sternum and far south of your overrated noggin? It’s where the best stuff lies.
“Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting,” at The Meadows Museum, through January 3, 2016.