After being brutally whipped, the gospels say that Christ was victimised in the governor’s headquarters by a group of Roman soldiers. (Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:2-5) This humiliation took place in front of the whole battalion.
St Matthew’s gospel puts it this way: “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head.” (27:28-30)
Dressing Christ as a king, complete with a crown of thorns and a reed for a sceptre, was a way of ridiculing his claim to be the Messiah, the promised ruler of Israel. Still dressed in the robe and wearing the crown of thorns, Pontius Pilate then brought him out to be seen by the people.
Later describing the episode, St Peter remarked on Christ’s passive attitude towards his tormentors: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)
The book of Genesis says that after being expelled from Eden, Adam was told that as a punishment for his sin, he would have to contend with “thorns and thistles” as he farmed the land (Genesis 3:17-18). The saints have often seen in this a mysterious prophecy of the crown of thorns, which Christ would willingly wear to reverse the sin of Adam.
The image of Christ wearing a crown of thorns (the ‘Man of Sorrows’) became a common subject in Christian art after the thirteenth century, following a new focus on the humanity and sufferings of Jesus. The inclusion of the episode in the devotion of the Rosary, as the ‘Third Sorrowful Mystery’, also led to its popularity.
Accordingly, this stained glass scene of the Crowning with Thorns forms part of a set of windows picturing the fifteen biblical scenes included in the Rosary. Found within St Werburgh’s, Chester, the window is by Hardman & Co. and dates to 1929. It is captioned Ecce Rex Vester – ‘Behold your king’ – which are the words that Pilate used to present Jesus to the crowds (John 19:14).
Here we see a seated Christ being beaten over the head by the soldiers, while wearing the scarlet robe and crown of thorns. His hands are tied as he clutches the reed forced on him by his captors. Christ’s deep, sorrowful gaze is the real star of the show. Drawing on the ‘Man of Sorrows’ tradition, it was designed to a draw an emotional response from the viewer as part of the Rosary devotion.
See the full image:
Detail of the base:
Where to find this work of art
St Werburgh’s, Chester
Read the relevant passage