The Painting

It was near closing time and the gallery was almost deserted. Late afternoon light fell in shafts across the polished pine floors, setting alight the dust of the day’s foot traffic. A guard wandered by with the quiet, rolling stroll Javier remembered from supervisors in high school examination rooms. Unlike in the exams, though, the guard smiled at him briefly and tapped her watch once as a courtesy.

Javier nodded and drifted further down the great hall towards the exit. He looked around as he went, greedy for the final gobbled crumbs of culture before he was swallowed up again by the working week.

Bruegel the Elder’s ‘Procession to Calvary’ hung near the exit, and Javier paused in front of it to stare. It was a large painting, yet not so large that anyone but Bruegel would have squeezed so much activity into its frame.

There was frantic, desperate movement all over, tension in each corner. Black birds soared omen-like in a roiling sky. One perched on a denuded tree stump with the spokes of a wagon wheel forming a nest at the top. Romans in red rode astride prancing horses. Two women wept in each other’s arms. A peddler stood with a box of wares strapped to his back, watching a tug-of-war between a man, a woman, and several armoured soldiers. A lamb curled, catlike and bewildered, on the ground and a horse grinned directly out of the painting, its head a fleshless skeleton.

Towering in the background was a lone precipitous cliff with a tiny, fragile mill resting precariously at its top. The atmosphere was that of a knife’s edge.

Javier had to look for a moment before he could see the figure of the Christ, caught in a tiny pocket of space in the centre of the painting. The God-man, draped in baroque blue, had fallen forward onto the earth, labouring under the weight of the wooden cross. Half a dozen others hovered near, yanking and grasping; it was impossible to tell if they were helping or hindering the condemned man. A cart, piled hazardously high with strangers, hovered just ahead, crowding the path uphill to the place of crucifixion.

Javier’s stomach lurched as he saw that in this rollicking, angry dystopian landscape, the weary broken form of the Christ was a tiny vignette, an insignificant nothing amongst the deliberate chaos. Javier, never a religious man, felt a foreign twist of grief for the bent figure who carried a cross for those who would not even stop to notice.

Look at him, Javier wanted to say. Look at him.

The words were so near to Javier’s lips that when the gallery guard tapped him on the shoulder, he worried he had spoken them aloud. He stared at the woman in a manner he felt instinctively must look a little unhinged.

“We really must close now,” she said, not unkindly.

“Yes – yes,” breathed Javier, nodding. “Yes. I will go.”

He glanced again at the scene, saw the barefoot child wading in a little stream, for all as if it was a picnic. Look at him, he said again somewhere under his ribs. Then he pushed himself out of the double doors and into the stark last light of afternoon. He climbed the stairs to the overpass and schlumped back down them again on the opposite side of the road, where he stood waiting with the others at the bus stop. He felt suddenly unutterably weary.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Procession to Calvary (1564) hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. For this story, I have imagined it resides a little closer to my home.