In April I spent a long morning in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, almost the entire time in the large room that displays eight or ten of Breugel’s best paintings (The Peasant Wedding, Saul on the Road to Damascus, Hunters in the Snow, Peasant Dance, and so on). I took lots of notes about the metaphor of standing in several of the paintings and am a little closer to an essay on the subject.
At one point, however, restless and wary of the crowd that had just arrived with a guide, I slipped into a row of interconnected smaller rooms, where I came upon a board standing in a glass case with paintings on either side. They were both works by Hieronymus Bosch, a naked boy walking with the aid of a little stand on the one side and Christ carrying the cross on the other side.
I thought of that magic moment when we take our first steps, of the awkwardness of the early move from four legs to two, from crawling to standing and walking erect. The painting, with its little three-legged device gets at that stage wonderfully.
The other painting, I thought, is of a human being (still like a man even if it is Christ) being brought low. Not only is he heavily weighed down by the cross, his feet are being destroyed by wooden pads with nails protruding through them.
As if to make a viewer think twice about the feet and their role in keeping us upright, one of the thieves is portrayed near the bottom with only one shoe.
These men are going to be killed. Christ’s feet will be nailed to the cross (Gruenewald’s depiction of the ruined feet in his Isenheim Altar is the most graphic). He will be brought low (Holbein’s Dead Christ is the most graphically horizontal and final of this stage).
I have never, however, seen the wood “sandals” with nails before. Does anyone know of other such depictions.
So, in the end, the two paintings that share the same board depict the moments of rising to ones feet and of losing one’s feet. Short of birth and death, these are defining moments for us.