Saturday, March 15, 2008

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889

James Ensor (1860 - 1949 )
Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889
Oil on canvas
99 1/2 x 169 1/2 in
The Getty Museum, Malibu

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (detail)

Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889 (detail)

Ensor`s large picture 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels' was refused by Les XX in 1889 and his work aroused violent opposition. It is now regarded as his masterpiece.

Ensor kept The Entry of Christ into Brussels with him throughout his life, and as with many of his paintings, he made a number of alterations to it.

This painting was not exhibited publicly until 1929. But Ensor displayed it prominently in his home and studio throughout his life.

Ensor deals with the question: if Christ returned to Earth today, what would be the reaction ? Would there be any difference to what happene two thousand years ago ?

Ensor reasoned that if Christ were to return to earth, modern commercial and political interests would certainly try to co-opt the event. Consider what happens when there is a Papal visit to a country outside Italy. Or when someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta made a visit ?

Although Christ has been given a parade in his honour, and he is shown entering Brussels on the back of a donkey as he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he is almost lost in the crowd.

The mayor of Brussels (at upper right, with the cane and sash) seems to be trying to use the event for his advantage. The atheist social reformer Emile Littré, shown in bishop's garb holding a drum major's baton is leading on the eager, mindless crowd.

The texts shown in the print include many contemporary social issues mixed in with advertisements:

VIVE JESUS ET LES REFORMES (Long live Jesus and the reforms)
COLMAN'S MUSTART (Colman's mustard)
VIVE DENBIJN (Long live Denbijn)
MOUVEMENT FLAMAND (Flemish movement)
LES VIVISECTEURS BELGES INSENSIBLES LES XX (The insensitive Belgian vivisectors Les XX -- Ensor was an ardent anti-vivisectionist, and had many resentments about his treatment by Les XX)
VIVE LA SOCIALE (Long live the Sociale, or Long live welfare)
FANFARES DOCTRINAIRES TOUJOUR REUSSI (Doctrinaire fanfares always succeed)
LES CHARCUTIERS DE JERUSALEM (The butchers of Jerusalem)
SALUT JESUS ROI DE BRUXELLES (Greetings to Jesus, King of Brussels)
PHALANGE WAGNER FRACASSANT (Noisy Wagner Army -- Ensor detested the music of Wagner)
LA SAMARIE RECONNAISSANTE (The grateful samaritan)
VIVE ANSEELE ET JESUS (Long live Anseele and Jesus -- Anseele was a Flemish socialist leader)

Ensor's society is a mob, threatening to trample the viewer--a crude, ugly, chaotic, dehumanised sea of masks, frauds, clowns, and caricatures. Public, historical, and allegorical figures along with the artist's family and friends made up the crowd.

Christ has been made small, marginalised and almost lost and forgotten in the torrent of people around him.

The work is more a social commentary and satire than a religious painting.

The central figure of Christ appears to be a self-portrait of Ensor. The bright yellow colour heightened the area around Christ with an intensity. This is consistent with Ensor's obsessive fascination with the religious and spiritual powers of light: the concept of Christ's halo as both a physical and spiritual source of light and power.


  1. You might consider my updating of Ensor's parade, In this version Christ returns to Washington, DC in 2008 to find chaos, ruin and death, with celebrating American religious, political and economic fundamentalists oblivious to the destruction (Joel Pelletier,

  2. Lovely article. Your interpretation helped me better understand this beautiful piece.