French painter, printmaker, and draftsman Odilon Redon (1840–1916) belonged to the Symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. A reaction against Realism, Symbolism emphasizes the spiritual reality that underlies the physical world and therefore favors dreamlike imagery and mysterious figures. The Gothic stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe were a major influence.
Redon is perhaps best known for his “noirs”: visionary works of charcoal or lithography done in shades of black, which include subjects like smiling spiders, eyeball balloons, and disembodied heads. But in addition to these, he also worked with vivid pastels and oil paints.
Although he wasn’t a Christian, Redon was attracted to the figure of Christ, especially because of the dual essence ascribed to him: both human and divine. Several of his works dwell on this mystery, among them his noir drawing Head of Christ wearing the Crown of Thorns—one of my favorite all-time images of Jesus.
Here Jesus’s pathos-filled gaze confronts the viewer directly from underneath a thicket of thorns. Whereas traditionally the crown his mockers gave him is depicted as a thinly woven band of evenly spaced prickles, here the crown is vast, unwieldy, chaotic—anything but dainty. In her excellent article “Tears, Veils, Thickets: Odilon Redon’s Representations of Christ,” Sedona Heidinger describes the thorns in this drawing as “gratuitous, unnecessarily vicious. . . . [The crown is] threatening and animate, snaking down to cover [Christ’s] chest with its barbs.”
Redon’s multiple treatments of this classic subject—Christ Crowned with Thorns—are haunting and mystical in a way that was unprecedented. In his interpretations, the thorns maintain an active presence. They are not a passive ornament.
Take, for example, his Christ lithograph of 1887. The thorns—“glinting like so many blades,” in Heidinger’s words—attack Christ from various angles. The most dynamic element of the portrait, Heidinger notes, is the diagonal that seems to spear the left side of Christ’s forehead and exit underneath his right ear, giving the impression that he is being skewered. As in the previously discussed Head of Christ, the eyes are extraordinarily expressive, deep wells of emotion. Here, though, they gaze upward, not outward. This could indicate a silent plea to the Father to make it stop, or else an anticipation of being reunited with him.
Another work of Redon’s that strongly features the crown of thorns is his circa 1895 drawing Christ—if one can call the thick, sinuous, thorn-studded vine that enwraps him a crown. It’s more like a hooded cloak, which drapes itself over Christ’s head and hugs his torso. With head bowed and eyes closed, he is lost in thoughts no one can know.
Contrast this drawing with Redon’s 1887 Head Crowned with Thorns, which shows a saintly visage cast in a numinous glow—very Veil of Veronica-esque. The thorns in this image do not weigh down on Christ; rather, his light dispels them, lifts them up from his head. The same is true of Redon’s Christ lithograph from the 1896 portfolio The Temptation of Saint Anthony, in which the sun itself emanates from Christ, haloing his sacred head. Here, too, the thorns don’t actually touch him. They seem to be disentangling and levitating, even, as if to suggest a Resurrection in progress.
Lastly, there’s Christ with Red Thorns, in which a coral-colored bramble arcs across the picture plane, caressing the cheek of the crucified Christ. Only the upper half of his body is shown. His lower half dissolves into a pool at the base of the picture.
In all these examples, the thorns dominate but are borne with dignity. A symbol of the curse of sin (Genesis 3:17–19), they tease and they oppress, and their stabs are deeply felt, but they are ultimately transformed into a crown of glory.