Saturday, December 08, 2012

A Procession to Calvary

Pieter Bruegel the Elder c. 1525 – 9 September 1569
The Procession to Calvary 
Oil on panel 
124 cm × 170 cm (49 in × 67 in) 
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Famous paintings often occur  in films

Girl with a Pearl Earring was a film of the book based on the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer 

The Mill and the Cross directed by Lech Majewski  is inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder's  painting The Procession to Calvary. The film is based on Michael Francis Gibson's book The Mill and the Cross. 
Lech Majewski said of the painting which inspired the film:

"Bruegel was, and still is, the wisest philosopher among the painters. In most of his works he took pains to hide the obvious by planting distractions somewhere else. The hidden should be palpable - that was his stratagem for showing the quintessence of suffering. Namely, that nobody cares about it. The sufferer is left alone, abandoned, forgotten... The others have to live their lives and somehow make the most out of it 
There are other themes in The Mill and the Cross as well: That only an artist can stop time, capture the moment and immortalise it. Or that the elements that build a single image hanging in a museum can be plentiful... But nothing is more important than that the hidden is the essence of Truth."

Here are the trailer and clips  Here is the website of the film

It is not fanciful to think of the film as being a reflection on Romans 8
The Procession to Calvary.(German, Kreuztragung Christi -  Christ Carrying the Cross) was painted in 1564

Here is an interview in English of  Michael Francis Gibson talking about the painting. 

The plot of the film is shortly told. 

Bruegel the Elder, the great 16th-century Flemish artist, chats with his patron Nicholas Jonghelinck while he sketches studies for a large work he is preparing. Then the camera pulls back, blending scores of actors and animals with computer-generated effects, painted backdrops and location shots to restage Bruegel’s 1564 masterpiece

Bruegel is played by Rutger Hauer, Michael York plays  Nicolaes Jonghelinck and Charlotte Rampling is Mary

Early Netherlandish painting was stimulated by a vibrant national economy and international trade. Bruges was the favoured residence of the Dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, and Antwerp was the commercial hub of Europe in the sixteenth

But it was not to last. Reformation, Counter-Reformation,and Habsburg power politics led to tragedy on a colossal scale

It was the eve of The Eighty Years' War, or Dutch War of Independence, (1568–1648) which began as a revolt of the Seventeen Provinces against Philip II of Spain, the Catholic  sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands

But the figures in the painting wear contemporary dress, and there can be no doubts that Bruegel meant his representation of the scene to have a particular reference to his own day where disputes between Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists and Calvinists were violent and bloody

At first one cannot distinguish the figures. There are over 500 figures. 

There are countless scenes all individually depicted and all separate 

One perhaps sees them as God sees them. Or from  on high, at a distance, as a child would look at an army of ants

Gradually one can distinguish a number of highlights: the Mill on the great rock; at the forefront right Mary being comforted by St John and others on a rocky ledge; the scene where the crucifixion is to be carried out

In the same way as Christ was executed by the Romans when they occupied Palestine two thousand years ago, the painting depicts Christ, in the heart of humanity and in the historical course of time. 

This time Christ is crucified within the crucible of sixteenth-century life in Flanders under the Spanish occupation of King Philip II, 

But Man fails continually to recognise Christ in his own time

"41 Then he will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 
42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 
43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 
44  Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 
45 He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ 
46 And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" 
(Matthew 25: 41 - 46)

How little the world notices, recognises or acknowledges the central truths of the Christian faith

We may not have public executions these days. But many are  the occasions in modern life when we rush to condemn an innocent man of horrible crimes which he did not commit simply out of sense of a terrible holy joy

We may not have the feelings or motives of a young St Augustine destroying a pear tree or maybe we just do not recognise evil when we see it anymore

Everyday there is at least one procession to Calvary somewhere in the world. Probably more than one

Like Sisyphus, man is condemned to contnually repeat the mistakes of the past. Absent grace and love, original sin and pride make man oblivious to the absurdity of human power and force designed to compel our fellow man to our will

We can all recognise the activities in the various scenes. They are played out each day in every day life

Some of the individual scenes can be examined in greater detail on the website of the  Gemäldegalerie Kunsthistorisches Museum  

On their raised promontory, Mary, John and the three Maries and others are in attendance. They know what is happening and from their elevated position above the ordinary elements of humanity, they represent Man`s hope that the dreadful cycle of depravity can be broken

Why did they not hide like the Apostles ? They have hope in the face of suffering. Spe Salvi Facti Sumus - In Hope we were saved (Romans 8: 24).

"Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey." (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi)

The other notable feature of the painting is the mill which stands upon the high rock

As this dominates the picture, so it dominates the film

It is a very strange image

It is situated in the place where in Crucifixion scenes one would as a matter of tradition expect to see God the Father

The mill is powered by sails which when stretched out resemble the Cross 

The wind moves the sails to turn the millstones, Between the millstones the grain is crushed into flour to make bread

The mill is built on a Rock. 

There is a church like quality to the mill

Apart from the miller, the mill and the rock appear to be deserted. 

All the people are moving from left to right towards the scene of the Crucifixion

We should at least recall the words of the Our Father:
 Give us this day our daily bread. —Matthew 6:9–13
We recall the testimony of St John of the words of Jesus in The Bread of Life Discourse
 (John 6)
"Amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 
48 I am the bread of life. 
49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 
50 this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die 
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”,,, 
53 Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 
54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. 
55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink 
.56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 
57 Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me 
58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
This work is the Crucifixion according to the testimony of John. Just as many rejected Christ`s words spoken in the Synagogue at Capernaum and deserted him so many have done since then, still do and will do until the end of time

Here is the film