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Titian, Christ Crowned with Thorns

Titian, Christ Crowned with Thorns, ca. 1570--76, oil on canvas, 280 × 182 cm. (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    This appears to me to be a great painting. But I'm not an expert in art. You certainly explain why you think this painting is great. But how does this compare to an average painting or a below-average painting from the same period? What does an expert see in this that would distinguish it from the common? Maybe you guys could bring examples of not-so-great paintings from the various eras so that we can appreciate what makes the great great and the common common?
    (23 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Beth
      From the author:Hi Ari, I seem to have deleted your specific question by accident. This is good question - what makes a great painting great, and different from a "B" level painting from the same period? This would indeed be a good topic for a video! I think this is where aesthetics come in - the judgment that the artist created a work of art where all of the elements of art (composition, color, light, space, form, balance etc) come together in a way that perfectly expresses the content of the work. Over time, a consensus develops about the work of particular artists, and these artists come to be a part of the "canon." And the "canon" does not remain stable - it is always in flux and new artists are added and others are removed. Nevertheless, in the case of Titian for example, he was highly sought after for commissions in his own day, and his reputation has not diminished through the centuries. In the nineteenth century things get more complicated, as the art that is sought after is art that pleases a large middle-class and upper-middle class culture, and this art tends to follow formulas and not have a lot of originality. This is when an avant-garde develops (the art we value today). Here are a couple of links that may help: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aesthetic-judgment/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_canon

      Good topic for a future video!
      (12 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Michœl
    What important part do these sticks play in crowning Christ with thorns? I don't understand this painting.
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine seedling style avatar for user Rachel Coburn
      The sticks serve two purposes -
      First, they serve an artistic purpose in drawing the eye along the lines of the sticks.
      Second, as to their purpose in the crowning with thorns, they served to position this torture device without damaging the hands of the soldiers. (Reminds me of using a pry bar when twisting and mounting barbed wire).
      (6 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Steven Meaney @Atlas
    For those not familiar, here is the scene from the king james version of the bible.
    Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, And said, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and they smote him with their hands. Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!
    (KJV, ch. 19)
    (5 votes)
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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Steven Zucker: By the time Titian painted Christ Crowned with Thorns, he was towards the end of his very long career. He was the greatest artist of the Venetian Renaissance and he was applying paint in a way that artists had never done before. Dr. Beth Harris: And you could imagine after decades of painting that you have a familiarity and an intimacy with your materials. It was said that Titian used his hands to paint at the end of his career. Steven: We actually have a sense that that might have been the case here. Look how heavy that paint is as it moves across the surface. Beth: We see torches in the upper right and you can see the thickness of the white and gold paint, gives us a sense of flickering light and of the chaos of this moment. Steven: You have these figures that emerge from darkness. He's able to convey a kind of aggression, a kind of energy. This is not the static Renaissance any longer and there's a dynamism and power that is really at odds with the way in which we think about the Renaissance. Beth: It's almost proto baroque, meaning that it looks toward the baroque and it's interest in movement and also in the way that everything is taking place very close to us and seems to move out into our space. Steven: The drama is something that I associate with a baroque and he is achieving that, not only by the use of diagonals, not only by the activation and the violence that's being rendered, but also by the really stark contrast between light and dark. Beth: It's funny that you use the word violence because to me, this painting isn't all that violent. We know that we're looking at Christ having the crown of thorns, this painful thing put on his head. Steven: Right, this is the passion, that is the events at the end of Christs life that culminate in the crucifixion. Beth: Right, these moments of Christ's terrible suffering, but I don't see Titian focusing on the blood and gore of the event like someone like Rubens will do. Steven: That's true. Look at the figure of Christ. Even for all the activity, there's also a kind of static quality, at least in that central figure. Beth: We see Christ twisting his body in an unnatural way and he seems very resigned. Steven: I'm interested in the way in which it is both violent and elegant simultaneously. Look at those diagonal sticks. A figure in the back right really is plunging that stick and there is a real sense of violence and yet the stick is not actually catching the thorns, it's not actually catching Christs head. It's somehow moving past. Beth: Their positions seem dance like instead of serious violent movement. Steven: That's the perfect word, dance like. Look at the figure on the extreme left. He couldn't be rendered in a more brutish way and yet he's elegantly up on the balls of his feet, his knees are bent, there is a balance and lightness that is really at odds with what he's meant to represent. Beth: Well, look at that figure in the lower right who strides up these stairs with a stick in one hand and an ax in the other, but his arm curls up, his head leans to the right. This is a position that looks more like choreography than actual movement and these are all characteristics that remind us of mannerism and this is 1570. After all, mannerism begins in the 1520's, 1530's, 1540's, right at the time of the reformation. This is a time of real spiritual upheaval in Europe and perhaps we're seeing that reflected here. Steven: It's a kind of anti-naturalism. There is something very theatrical about it. There is something very invented about it. Beth: And in some ways we can't even read the forms of the bodies. Not only has Titian embedded everything in darkness and the shallow space, but for example, we can't read the right leg of that standing figure on the left or similarly the right leg of the figure who's striding up from the lower right. So, space becomes incomprehensible, which is also a characteristic of mannerism. Steven: When you look at a painting like this you can see the tremendous impact that this artist had on later painters. I'm looking at Velazquez Rubens Rembrant and, of course, Caravaggio. All these artists are looking back to Titian and this extraordinary achievement, in a sense, the freedom that Titian is allowing for generations of artists. Freeing them from the strictures of balance and harmony and clarity that had been hallmarks of the Renaissance. Beth: So, this is an interesting moment of transitioning from the Renaissance. We see elements of mannerism and we also see elements of the baroque that is just to come. (piano playing)