The Logic of Christ’s Martyrdom in Nolde’s “Verspottung”

Emil Nolde “Verspottung” (“Mocking of Christ by the Soldiers”)
Emil Nolde “Verspottung” (“Mocking of Christ by the Soldiers”)

By eliminating the historical and even the social setting of the event when “taken to the custody” Christ appeared in the hands of the soldiers, Nolde forces us to see what is happening between them as a fundamental truth about human life today not less than it was more than twenty centuries ago – mocking, humiliating and tormenting a person who dares to think that he is god’s child while not belonging to the hierarchical world of power and wealth. Christ defines a human being as a value outside social hierarchy, a value that transcends the frame of reference which makes possession of social power a definition of human worth!

Christ’s giant lips are, it seems Nolde’s comment on the universal authoritarian concept of a “big mouth” – a man who dares to have his own ideas, not framed by his “responsible position in society” – a “respectable place in the social hierarchy”. Christ’s lips, which have been praying, preaching, blessing, and healing the sick, are now tightly closed – Christ for the soldiers is a blasphemous impostor defiantly preaching without license and criticizing the authorities without legitimate stance.

Animated faces of the soldiers made emotionally expressive by their contempt for the captured, are represented as a reality more defining the human historical destiny than ideologies or religious dogmas and the level of technology available for human use in any historical epoch. Their facial expressions point to the archetypal legacy of human psychology motivating people’s actions and decisions today not less than it did eons ago. It is these faces with which Nolde has filled the canvass are his main focus in “Verspottung” – people’s proclivity to abuse the defenseless one. Christ is the only protagonist of the painting who has a human body – soldiers are painted, mainly, as faces, more exactly, as facial expressions representing social positions toward the human flesh that is without any protection of power and glory. Nolde is not interested in armed bodies, he is reverential only of the body of Christ: without power, without power’s protection, a real human body, a sacred one. Soldiers laugh at Christ’s nudity as the sign of helplessness of human condition without power, wealth and weapon – when human body is the victim.

Christ and soldiers are painted as though in a cave full of fire. Soldiers’ shining helmets and red/orange faces are the flames itself encircling, seizing and destroying life. Taking pleasure from mocking the helpless is the emotion which corresponds to the soul of flames incinerating the flesh. But then why are the colors of the painting so faded? It cannot be due to the fact that the Event of Christ took place long ago. Betraying, mocking, torturing and murdering of Christ/human body happen every day in Christian societies of high-tech weapons, destruction of the environment, austerity measures and profit-idolatry. But this truth is so radically separated from our perception, as if it belonged to some other parallel universe. We are doomed to feel this truth, as if, through the fog. Creating this painterly effect of waning of intense/inflamed colors is Nolde‘s incredible achievement in “Verspottung”.

Christ’s face/body is of a prevailing greenish color – as soon as people around are flames, Christ is verdure. The face and fingers of the soldier to the left of Christ [from our point of view], as if, reflect Christ’s liveliness. All other faces are the faces of flames (of the very position of power toward the human flesh). Christ‘s hair is, as if, caught on fire. For soldiers as children of hierarchy and authoritarianism Christ’s claim that helpless human flesh is of a godly nature, means that Christ claims for himself a super-human status. They don’t understand that by saying that he is god’s child, Christ means that everybody is, even people on the bottom of the social hierarchy. Soldiers mocking Christ are vampires – they are, as if, psychologically overfilled with his blood.

The soldier in the right low corner of the painting mockingly pretends he is looking at Christ as at God, from down up. The next soldier, the second on the right low corner of the painting desecrates Christ’s human dignity by putting his left hand on Christ’s naked chest as if it‘s a woman’s breast, and holding the stick, as if, to measure Christ’s distance from the sky. The soldier on the left margin of the painting is just enjoying himself – he is glad to feel himself secure and powerful contrary to their “delusional” detainee. The soldier to the right from Christ [from our perspective], mockingly pretends that he is proud to be near Christ, while the soldier to the right of him, laughs, rather in a subdued way – may be, he is a little bit frightened of God’s revenge, should Christ, indeed (“who knows?”), be the son of God. Soldiers put an ordinary stick to Christ’s body, as if, a scepter, mocking him as a king. Soldiers’ teeth are represented as organs of laughter – for Nolde mocking is a prototype of cannibalistic excitement, a predatory prelude to cannibalistic act.

But the main point of the painting is the psychological position of Christ. While soldiers have fun and feel themselves great, Christ is silently… smiling. He is smiling, as if, in unison with their laughter! His lips are closed – time for talks has passed (soldiers are beyond persuasion – they are the ultimate henchmen). But he is… compassionate toward them! He empathizes with those who torture him because to torture is all they have in life, because it is their identity – to triumph over the helpless/vulnerable human body. How else will they assert themselves in life? How else they will feel living? The only thing Christ can do for them at this point is to give them his compassionate smile. He knows how doll-like or robot-like deprived they’re.

Christ acknowledges that he cannot do anything else for his murderers than not to feel hate, anger or indignation towards them (not to use these psychological defenses in order to help himself in the moments of his final ordeals). Why does Nolde make Christ stare straight ahead in front of himself? He knows how it will end soon and at this point he is ready – his eyes are blueness itself – eternity. But this blue eternity is not above life – Christ looks directly at us, he looks at the humankind. The blueness of His eyes is that of human existence. His compassion toward soldiers as political murderers and torturers is not only dedicated to them, but also to us. May be, he wants us today to understand that human torturers are deprived of life because of their orientation on power over human, life’s, nature’s flesh. May be, Nolde’s Christ tries to awaken us to the fact that today’s soldiers and policemen (who are put against the unarmed and peaceful demonstrators) are spiritually deprived in the same way as the soldiers who mocked and killed Him, and nobody ever explained to them their educational and spiritual deprivation.

Are we able, today, in the beginning of 21st century, hearing this appeal of Christ through Nolde’s painting?

If Christ in Nolde’s “Verspottung” symbolizes the sacredness of the unprotected human body as the baby of God, then the soldiers who killed him, today blast and bomb civilians, torture prisoners and insult and mock their political opponents, people dissimilar from them, the needy, sick, elderly. In the world of fire (high-tech weapons) flesh is filth and rot – something of negative value, object of mockery, humiliation and murder. But those who abuse and destroy others are in a much worse situation than their victims. And it is them who need therapeutic and educational help in the first place.

*Other essays about works of art dedicated to various aspects of the phenomenon of Christ, posted in this blog –

  Emil Nolde’s “Christ and the Children” (1910) – Radical Reversal of Iconic Tradition by Acting-Out Politics

  Max Beckmann – Christ And Woman Taken In Adultery (1917) – Christ as a Democratic (Tolerant and Rational) Authority Figure by Acting-Out Politics

  Paul Gauguin’s Painting “The Yellow Christ” (1889) and Jacob Epstein’s sculptures “Bronze Figure of Madonna and Child” (1927), “Madonna and Child” (1927) and “Virgin and Child” (1953) by Acting-Out Politics

Jacob Epstein’s “Bronze Figure of the Madonna and Child”, “Madonna and Child”, “Virgin and Child”, 01 Jan 2013.  Paul Gauguin’s Painting “The Yellow Christ” (1889) and Jacob Epstein’s sculptures “Bronze Figure of Madonna and Child” (1927), “Madonna and Child” (1927) and “Virgin and Child” (1953) by Acting-Out Politics