writers on dancing


A Painting for Dancers

Choreographing Crowd Scenes:
Rubens' "The Road to Calvary"

by Paul Parish

Some composers, like Bach and Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, really speak to dancers—and so do some painters and sculptors. One of these for me is Rubens—he uses bodies and orchestrates movement like a choreographer (Lavrovsky, Fokine, probably Noverre). I've come to this conclusion after going back over and over to visit a painting of his; not an important Rubens, just an oil sketch, a preparatory study for a larger work, not even in color, really, just black and white and sepia, bought in the 1960's for less than $100,000 -- but still, it's the most appealing painting in the Bay Area to me. For a sketch, it's brought up to a high level of finish. The physicality of the brush-work is as hot as any action-painter's, and more delicate - check out the white threads in the horse's manes, on the satin skirt as it molds to Veronica's thigh, on the Roman soldier's helmet, in that exultant hunting-horn. The painting itself is about as broad as my shoulders, nearly two feet high, and wears a frame of dark wood about as wide as my hand. It's hung too low: the top of it is level with my hairline (about 5'7") *

A painting is of course not a moving picture, but it can contain or suggest motion, much as a building can; a wall can undulate, Baroque columns often spiral. Indeed, the function of religious architecture, painting and sculpture in the Baroque period was to break down the barrier between the ordinary world and the eternal, using optical illusions to surround you with a sense of the miraculous, to make the mythic seem present.

First of all Rubens uses the muscularity of the human body like a choreographer for plastic, emotional, and dynamic effects—look at the energy animating the giant who's lifting the cross off Jesus, or the soft but unstoppable surge of compassion bearing Veronica towards Jesus to comfort him. There are numerous mini-dramas going on within the surging crowd. But they are all subordinated to the push-pull of the drive up that hill, the forces that want it to make it and those that want it to fall back. It's like a river going uphill—all those naked backs, working like waves, with cross-currents, undertows, flows of weight and intention—which is greater than the sum of its individual wills and reveals general, even cosmic laws in operation. (The whole composition is organized in a spiral around a central axis going up the hill and has that fundamental spiraling line one sees everywhere in Baroque art—for example, in the columns on Bernini's baldacchino over the high altar in St Peter's.)

The tensions within the picture reflect the push-pull emotions Christians feel about their salvation—the crucifixion which takes place at the end of this road, which Jesus undertakes willingly, though not gladly, will save the whole world, and which therefore, though we lament it, it is the cause of our joy—we can not wish it undone.

Rubens' subject came to him ready-made—this scene is one of the Stations of the Cross, number 6, in fact: "Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus"—a guided meditation which was formalized during the Counter-reformation and most Roman Catholics still practice today. When I was a boy, my family went to the Stations of the Cross and Benediction every Wednesday evening during Lent. It's a powerful aid to reflection. The object was to imagine what Jesus went through, always remembering that it was worse than you CAN imagine, as his love for us (it implies) is also greater than we can imagine. **

(I don't mean to sell Christian doctrine—I don't "believe" it myself any more, any more than I believe in Giselle or King Lear; but the depths of the experience can't be touched without giving the story "poetic faith.")

Rubens has subordinated many effects to one powerful complex impression—Jesus has fallen under the cross, and his head is situated so that he looks out of the picture into your eyes; the look in his eyes asks you,"Do you see this? What are you going to do about it?" (Unfortunately, the picture needs to be seen from below for the perspective to come into play; suddenly, the figures become solid, the sense that YOU ARE THERE suddenly jumps out at you, in a way you can't see from the otherwise beautiful reproduction. The look in Jesus's eyes becomes truly penetrating.) It is an effect that war- and famine-photographers have cultivated; we see faces of starving Somali children looking out of Oxfam posters.

What a web of interlocking bodies—3 horses, a couple of donkeys, a pair of babies, 2 women (both of them saints), and how many men, not to mention the commotion of lances, spears, swords, a flag, an Asiatic hunting-horn, gnarly chaparral, the rocky road itself, and storm-clouds in the distance. Rubens has found an arresting moment to focus all this —Jesus has fallen under the cross, and the parade has stopped (but only in the way that parades DO stop—the front men carrying ladders, who're already round the bend almost out of sight, have no idea what's happened behind them and haven't slowed down at all).

Veronica is like us a bystander, and she acts FOR us; she intrudes into the scene at this moment. But within the action there's a guy pulling Jesus by the hair, and another, a GIANT lifting the cross off of him, while poor Simon of Cyrene*** stuck at the bottom end of the cross, struggles to lift it but he can't budge it at all from his angle, it's like having a bad grip on a refrigerator you're trying to get through the front door so far as he's concerned. And meantime, a magnificent Roman soldier, the lieutenant in charge of this detail, is shoving the blunt end of his lance into Jesus's flank, mostly as a gesture of impatience, since it's not doing anything efficient except asserting his authority. (In fact, all of the Romans are making highly rhetorical, classical, and ineffective gestures—It's hot, they're tired, the Romans are looking VERY antique, in majestic poses with their backs in magnificent contrapposto curves, getting nothing done. Without making a BIG deal of it, Rubens is contrasting the temporary power of Caesar with the abiding power of God, which rises from compassion and inheres in Jesus and those sympathetic to him.)

Veronica in particular needs to be seen from the right perspective—I mean, literally, from below, for the sense of movement to come into play. She is rising into the scene, kind of squatting on the left heel and lifting from the right, totally unself-conscious, completely stirred by compassion— her gesture is so soft, but powerfully supported, as she presses her exquisite embroidered kerchief against Jesus forehead. The look in her eye is the same as the expression of her whole body—"O my God! What have they done to you?"

Just behind Jesus, there's another Roman soldier pulling the hair of a half-naked peasant with his hands tied behind him. The Roman is rocked back on his heels—his head is jerked back in astonishment, his helmet is almost falling off, and the look in his eyes is shocked—while the man whose hair he is pulling is looking at him like, "Man, I am so exhausted, I can't believe you're trying to get more work out of me!'

That pair mirrors Jesus and the guy pulling his hair—which makes you realize that the exhausted prisoner is probably one of the two thieves who's going to be crucified with Jesus—but which one? I've been looking at this painting for 20 years, and most of the time I think it is the "good" thief, the one whom Christ pardons from the Cross and tells,"This day thou shalt see me in Paradise." But some days, the look in his eyes seems so "FUCK YOU, bastard!"—really murderous—I find myself wondering if maybe he's blood-minded for all eternity, and the meek one next to him is the guy who goes to Heaven. The fascinating thing about it is that the whole thing is SO real, so lifelike, that it changes every time you see it—it's ambiguous, it does not impose a simplistic interpretation on you, the expressions are those you could see on the bus, on the subway, anywhere around you in real daily life, and you don't know one-tenth of what's going on in those relationships, even though you try to interpret and sometimes think you KNOW, you know you don't.

A pair of Pharisees wearing turbans help lead the procession as it coils up the mountainside, look small and pleased with themselves; one is blowing a glorious horn, kind of a cross between a French horn, a hunting horn, and one of those biceps-ornaments they found in Tutankhamun's tomb, as if they have turned their backs on he human drama taking place behind them and 'know not what they do." They sit their donkeys in a very comfortable way and look satisfied that they are doing the right thing—I find myself liking them. Unlike the Romans, who know they're doing something brutal, the Pharisees are light of heart, clear about their function, right is on their side. The horn-player is the happiest creature in the scene— happy in the German sense, selig—he is innocent, there is no ill-will in him.

It a relief to see that Rubens is not anti-Semitic: he has not slanted the picture toward melodrama, and certainly has not "blamed the Jews" —nor the Romans, nor the foot-soldiers who do this because it's their job.

This affects how I read the look in Jesus's eyes: it's like a close-up in a movie, very complicated. For his home audience, Rubens has made him look like "any one of us" — i.e., he looks SO Flemish, I know a guy from Amsterdam who looks just like this Jesus. The cross sits on top of him in the worst possible way—he can't possibly get up, and the help others are "offering" is only pinning his right side down the harder, but he's not whining about that. He's not whining at all. He has "agreed" to this: as the creator of all things, Christ Pantocrator, he was there from the VERY beginning—and yet as Jesus of Nazareth, he has to go through with it, and ..... it is a bitter cup. (Socrates could have said almost exactly the same thing.)

He does not notice Veronica —though he is not unkind to her, he is looking at us; though as I've said, where the painting is hung in the Berkeley Art Museum, you have to kneel down in front of it for the expression to become "real." From that posture, you find yourself in awe of the MIND of the central figure. He is in this sense NOT like the waif in the Oxfam poster—the expression does not accuse you. And it stays alive, mirrors back to you what's at the back of your mind today. Most recently, it seemed to me that he is challenging you not only emotionally but also intellectually: "Don't you see, this is how it IS?" His expression is not simple: it's not agonized, not ecstatic, not in extremis—he's looking at you as both God and man—he's going through with it, he knows the stakes, he's doing it for you, and all of us, and the question is, DO YOU GET IT?

The challenge is, as Rilke said, "You must change your life."

Incredible painting.



The turbaned figure at the top of the picture, above Mary and Veronica, silhouetted against the clouds and turning to look backward, is a marvellous composition. His head is like the finial of a spiralling line passing upward through the bodies of the two women. Indeed, when my eye first lights on him, he seems to be a woman, for the pelvis is so wide, his outline is so like an hourglass or violin - i.e., the classic female shape - he evokes the image of Lot's wife, looking back with regret on the cities of the plain. But then I see the donkey's long straight neck, the plain ridge of vertebra so clear under their unappetizing stubbly mane, his simple stubborn donkey intention, and realize that the wide pelvis belongs to the ass, not the man. This makes it clear who this is (a Pharisee carrying the staff of office, in charge of seeing the law is carried out). But the question what's he turning around to look at is NOT answered.

The more you look at his noble face, the more he seems to be pondering something rather than checking out what went wrong back there. He mostly seems to be responding to the sound of the horn-blower . The curve of his back is not parading any importance (as the Romans postures so loudly ARE parading their authority); his shoulders are rounded, ample, like Veronica's. The ambiguity of his pose is infinitely suggestive, and encourages a further cycle of reflection.

Over the years I've nicknamed the babies, one leaning into the scene, the other recoiling: "Pity" and "Fear" -- after the two emotions that Aristotle thought tragedy was created to fine-tune in us. Rubens clearly has this in mind, and has posted the babies there to remind us, if we needed it, that this is not realism, this is TRUTH we're looking at.

The scene is very theatrical - and it comes from an era when Bernini could design the Cornari chapel and place statues of the Cornari family in "boxes" where they observe the altarpiece (the Ravishment of St Theresa) as if they were at the opera.

**The stations of the cross is a processional ritual that goes back to the Crusades. For those who had not made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and climbed the Via Dolorosa for themselves, the Franciscans instituted a series of shrines that could be used as substitutes. The current system of 14 became extablished in the Netherlands in the 16th century. Nowadays, the priest will make his way around the church, stopping in front of each station, which will be represented on the wall by a painting or bas-relief sculpture depicting the scene, and preaches a little homily appropriate to each, which is followed by silent meditation before he proceeds to the next station. As you can imagine, there are now virtual stations of the cross: here is a link to a devout site:

The stations are as follows:

I Jesus is condemned to death.
II Jesus takes up the cross.
III Jesus falls the first time.
IV Jesus meets his Mother.
V Simon of Cyrene is forced to help Jesus carry the cross.
VI Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
VIISesus falla a second ime.
VIII Jesus speaks to the women.
IX Jesus falls a thrid time.
X Jesus is stripped of his garments.
XI Jesus is nailed to the cross.
XII Jesus dies on the cross
XIII Jesus is taken down from the cross.
XIV Jesus is laid in the tomb.

*** To summarize a whole chapter in "An Outline of European Architecture, by the great architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, Baroque art (unlike that of the renaissance) was essentially popular rather than intellectual or designed for an elite. It took the forms which the Renaissance had made familiar and used them to reassert the emotional allegiance of the Catholic peoples to their customs, their beliefs, and the saints who had been protecting them all these years and were now being called into question by the reformers. The art is designed to take thoughts you're familiar with and surround you, ravish you with sensory PROOF of them. If you were having difficulty imagining a nun being ravished by an angel, Bernini's magnificent statue of St Theresa in ecstasy will make it all clear for you.

Pevsner finds "the line that curves in three dimensions" to be the fundamental Baroque structural idea. It is rich to see him describing a church in Rome (San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane) as "rolling and rocking" (p 245) —since it is probably the case that the best current analogy for Baroque energy, for the application of fabulous talent and imagination to asserting heartfelt truths, is to be found in Gospel music and the practices of the sanctified and Holiness church.

copyright Paul Parish

The photograph of the painting is reproduced with permission of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. The painting hangs in gallery 6 in the Museum's permanent collection.

There are links to related works of art on the side bar, top right.




A child's drawing of Station 6:

The baldachino at St. Peter's, Rome is shown here:

the weltenburg altar is shown here (slide #3)

A stunning reproduction of Bernini's St Teresa

what did you think?
Share views about performances, post announcements of upcoming events and news, on our forum.
keep in touch

To make sure your events are listed on our Calendar, send info to Calendar.

Please email photos in jpg format to photos.

You can reach the editor or any of our writers by emailing feedback.

Want to subscribe to our FREE weekly update? Send us your email address to update.

(c) 2003 by danceviewwest
page last updated: October 8, 2003