Artist: Ary Scheffer
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 184 x 248 cm
Location: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
19 IMAGES FROM THE 19th CENTURY: PART 5
Luke 4:18: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains.”
At the center of the composition is the figure of Christ, surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed. A kneeling woman mourns her dead child, while in the background we see an exile with his walking stick, a castaway with a piece of the wreckage in his hand, and a suicide with a dagger. Placed near these groups are Torquato Tasso (crowned with laurel), a brilliant 16th-century poet imprisoned as a madman, and figures representing the three ages of women. To the right of Christ are the oppressed of both the past and present, among them a Polish independence fighter, a Greek Souliote warrior, a Roman slave, and a black slave. With his left hand Christ releases from his shackles a dying man, the personification of Poland with the shattered weapons of its failed insurrection against Russia by his side, his exposed, wounded body draped in the Polish flag. The repentant Mary Magdalene kneels beside Christ. It is an encyclopedic interpretation of human history that transports the viewer from modern-day Poland, Greece, and America to both the ancient and medieval eras. The composition reflects the renewed interest in France during the 1830s for a more liberal activism within the Catholic Church. On a personal level, it also reveals the artist’s appreciation for various European art movements, especially, the markedly religious Nazarene circle in Germany.
The Dutch-born and French-trained artist Ary Scheffer (February 1795 - June 1858) was one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters active in Paris during the first half of the 19th century. Although his earliest works concentrated on illustrating Romantic literature or overtly sentimental genre subjects, after 1830 he became increasingly occupied with Old and New Testament themes. Christus Consolator created a sensation when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1837, where it was purchased by the French monarch’s son, the Duc d’Orléans, as a wedding present for his Lutheran fiancée, the Princess Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Scheffer’s religious subjects were the source of his international reputation during his lifetime, and, one might argue, the epitome of his genius. Christus Consolator was, after Holman Hunt’s contemporaneous Light of the World, the most popular religious image throughout the Western world during the middle decades of the 19th century.