Johann Boeckhorst's The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners
 

                                                                     Photo:  Courtesy of The Ackland Art Museum
 

        Johann Boeckhorst’s The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners (c. 1660) vividly depicts a compassionate Christ forgiving various biblical figures who are known for repenting from their sin.  Thus, unlike many other artists, Boeckhorst’s purpose in creating this work was not to tell a specific story.  Rather, the painting, which combines the ideals of repentance and absolution from sin with an image of Christ, is likely the product of a religious debate raging during Boeckhorst’s time.  This seventeenth-century battle arose as a result of a disagreement between the Protestants and Catholics over the nature of repentance and forgiveness from sin.  Catholics held that confession of sin, combined with acts of penance, was a holy sacrament.  Protestants, on the other hand, believed that absolution from sin was obtained as a result of one's faith in God and his divine mercy and did not involve any acts of penitence (boeckhorst.html).  In his painting, Boeckhorst powerfully conveys his pro-Catholic position, regarding repentance from sin as a divine sacrament.
        Boeckhorst’s choice of characters in The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners reveals his position of Catholic support.  Most of the figures in the painting were used by Catholic scholars as examples of the holy sacrament of penance (boeckhorst.html).  In Boeckhorst’s work, the viewer is immediately drawn to Christ, not only because he is the central figure, but also because he takes up a large portion of the canvas.  The artist’s purpose in depicting Christ mostly unclothed is that exposing his flesh adds to his human identity and creates an image of his closeness to the mortal people.
        In addition to Christ, Boeckhorst incorporates individuals who are very different from one another, yet who are all tied together by a commonality of their repentance from sin.  The character I recognized first was the elderly man, King David, whose status is distinguished by his golden crown and ornate clothing.  Boeckhorst undoubtedly incorporated these objects into his depiction of King David to represent affluence and thus to form a contrast to Christ.  Beside King David, is the thief who repented from his sin on the cross next to Jesus.  The vivid details of his body reveal the contour of his ribs, muscles, and bones, thus causing the viewer to imagine the suffering he must have endured.  On the opposite side of Jesus is St. Peter, who is shown bowing his head and crying to reveal the shame he feels.  The character leaning on the shepherd’s staff is the fictional biblical figure, the Prodigal Son.  The poverty he suffered as a result of his sin is illustrated by the fact that he is clothed in only rags.  The woman in the painting is Mary Magdalen, who sinned as a prostitute.  Therefore, Boeckhorst’s inclusion of Mary into his work conveys a message of hope that no matter how great an individual’s sin, forgiveness can be obtained through repentance.  The two figures in the background, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, were not sinners, but were placed in the painting to serve as witnesses to Christ’s mercy and forgiveness.  Boeckhorst placed them at a distance, to distinguish them from the sinners.  Furthermore, the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and John were included in the painting as symbolic representations of the Catholic faith.  Thus, Boeckhorst illustrates the sinners to convey his position regarding repentance from sin as a holy sacrament.
        The facial expressions and gestures of the characters dramatize the emotions on both sides of the interaction between Christ and the repentant sinners.  It is in this manner, that Boeckhorst conveys the mood of the scene, which is a combination of sorrow and optimism.  All of the sinners, with the exception of St. Peter, are looking up at Christ with expressions of sorrow and guilt on their faces, whereas Christ is glancing down at the people with a look of compassion and warmth.  The artist further dramatizes the work through his careful attention to the body positioning of the characters.  Symbolic of their humility and repentance, the sinners are down on their knees.  This seems to convey the message that the figures do not feel that they are worthy enough to be in Christ’s presence.  Furthermore, Boeckhorst again uses the characters to add support to the Catholic ideal of confession and repentance from sin as a sacrament.  By depicting the figures in a kneeling position, Boeckhorst shows that the characters' absolution from sin is dependent upon Christ's mercy.  On the other hand, Christ, as a symbol of his freedom from sin stands erect.  Most importantly, his outstretched hand and open palm is symbolic of Christ’s forgiveness with which he is offering to lift up the sinners.
        In addition to the main characters, Boeckhorst purposefully includes other humanistic figures and inanimate objects whose symbolism adds to the meaning of the work.  The angels in the sky, for instance, are crucial to the theme of the work.  The author’s decision to portray them as children was undoubtedly to cause the viewer to associate the angels with virtues like innocence and purity.  I also believe that the angels are shown in heaven to remind the viewer of the life with Christ that awaits them after death if they repent from their sin.  The palm branches held by the angels evoke in my mind the biblical image of the olive branch carried by the dove as a symbol of hope and peace.  It looks as though one of the angels is about to place one of the branches, which is shaped like a crown, on Christ’s head to declare him the prince of peace.  Other symbolic objects in the painting include the globe, which represents the world, and the serpent, a symbol of evil, on which Christ is standing as well as the cross, which he is holding.  To me, the artist is saying that Christ’s victory over death on the cross led him to reign over the sin of the world.
        In his painting, Boeckhorst uses color and light to complete his image of repentance and absolution from sin.  With respect to color choice, one of his most important decisions was to depict Christ’s flesh as being pale.  This is symbolic, in that white stands for purity and is appropriate because Christ is free from sin.  Boeckhorst’s decision could also have been to make Christ stand out more and thus to draw the viewer’s attention.  The barren background, which is done in earth tones of deep greens and browns, suggests the desolation felt by the sinners.  The dull background also helps to focus the viewer’s attention on the intimate encounter between Christ and the sinners.  To contrast with the gloom and despair resulting from the dark hues used in the background, the artist incorporates light into the painting.  Another use of light in the work is to symbolize Christ as the “light of the world.”  Light, which is also frequently associated with vision, might be representative of the true vision of Christ that is available to Christians when they repent from their sin and seek forgiveness from God.
        Artistic works are often inspired as a result of events currently shaping the economic, political, or religious situation.  Johann Boeckhorst’s The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners is no exception, in that, the painting addresses one of the most contested religious disputes of the seventeenth century, the nature of sin and repentance.  Crucial to interpreting this work, like any other piece of art, is to examine various elements, such as the artist’s use of characters, symbolic objects, color, and light.  It is through analyzing these areas that I arrived at a purpose behind Boeckhorst’s work.  In my opinion, his goal in depicting the scene of Christ forgiving the sinners was not only to convey his pro-Catholic position, but also to cause the people of his time to contemplate what they believed and consequently to take a definitive stand.
 
 

"The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners." Ackland Art Museum.  Available

    http://www.unc.edu/depts/ackland/tours/boeckhorst.html, 7 April 1999.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 Johann Boeckhorst’s The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners (c. 1660) vividly depicts a compassionate Christ forgiving various biblical figures who are known for repenting from their sin.  Thus, unlike many other artists, Boeckhorst’s purpose in creating this work was not to tell a specific story.  Rather, the painting, which combines the ideals of repentance and absolution from sin with an image of Christ, is likely the product of a religious debate raging during Boeckhorst’s time.  This seventeenth-century battle arose as a result of a disagreement between the Protestants and Catholics over the nature of repentance and forgiveness from sin.  Catholics held that confession of sin, combined with acts of penance, was a holy sacrament.  Protestants, on the other hand, believed that absolution from sin was obtained as a result of one's faith in God and his divine mercy and did not involve any acts of penitence (1).  In his painting, Boeckhorst powerfully conveys his pro-Catholic position, regarding repentance from sin as a divine sacrament. Boeckhorst’s choice of characters in The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners reveals his position of Catholic support.  Most of the figures in the painting were used by Catholic scholars as examples of the holy sacrament of penance (1).  In Boeckhorst’s work, the viewer is immediately drawn to Christ, not only because he is the central figure, but also because he takes up a large portion of the canvas.  The artist’s purpose in depicting Christ mostly unclothed is that exposing his flesh, adds to his human identity and creates an image of his closeness to the mortal people.  In addition to Christ, Boeckhorst incorporates individuals who are very different from one another, yet who are all tied together by a commonality of their repentance from sin.  The character I recognized first was the elderly man, King David, whose status is distinguished by his golden crown and ornate clothing.  Boeckhorst undoubtedly incorporated these objects into his depiction of King David to represent affluence and thus to form a contrast to Christ.  Beside King David, is the thief who repented from his sin on the cross next to Jesus.  The vivid details of his body reveal the contour of his ribs, muscles, and bones, thus causing the viewer to imagine the suffering he must have endured.  On the opposite side of Jesus is St. Peter, who is shown bowing his head and crying to reveal the shame he feels.  The character leaning on the shepherd’s staff is the fictional biblical figure, the Prodigal Son.  The poverty he suffered as a result of his sin is illustrated by the fact that he is clothed in only rags.  The woman in the painting is Mary Magdalen, who sinned as a prostitute.  Therefore, Boeckhorst’s inclusion of Mary into his work conveys a message of hope that no matter how great an individual’s sin, forgiveness can be obtained through repentance.  The two figures in the background, the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, were not sinners, but were placed in the painting to serve as witnesses to Christ’s mercy and forgiveness.  Boeckhorst placed them at a distance, to distinguish them from the sinners.  Furthermore, the Virgin Mary and Saints Peter and John were included in the painting as symbolic representations of the Catholic faith.  Thus, Boeckhorst illustrates the sinners to convey his position regarding repentance from sin as a holy sacrament.
 The facial expressions and gestures of the characters dramatize the emotions on both sides of the interaction between Christ and the repentant sinners.  It is in this manner, that Boeckhorst conveys the mood of the scene, which is a combination of sorrow and optimism.  All of the sinners, with the exception of St. Peter, are looking up at Christ with expressions of sorrow and guilt on their faces, whereas Christ is glancing down at the people with a look of compassion and warmth.  The artist further dramatizes the work through his careful attention to the body positioning of the characters.  Symbolic of their humility and repentance, the sinners are down on their knees.  This seems to convey the message that the figures do not feel that they are worthy enough to be in Christ’s presence.  Furthermore, Boeckhorst again uses the characters to add support to the Catholic ideal of confession and repentance from sin as a sacrament.  By depicting the figures in a kneeling position, Boeckhorst shows that the characters' absolution from sin is dependent upon Christ's mercy.  On the other hand, Christ, as a symbol of his freedom from sin stands erect.  However, most importantly, is his outstretched hand and open palm, which is symbolic of Christ’s forgiveness with which he is offering to lift up the sinners.
 In addition to the main characters, Boeckhorst purposefully includes other humanistic figures and inanimate objects whose symbolism adds to the meaning of the work.  The angels in the sky, for instance, are crucial to the theme of the work.  The author’s decision to portray them as children was undoubtedly to cause the viewer to associate the angels with virtues like innocence and purity.  I also believe that the angels are shown in heaven to remind the viewer of the life with Christ that awaits them after death if they repent from their sin.  The palm branches held by the angels evoke in my mind the biblical image of the olive branch carried by the dove as a symbol of hope and peace.  It looks as though one of the angels is about to place one of the branches, which is shaped like a crown, on Christ’s head to declare him the prince of peace.  Other symbolic objects in the painting include the globe, which represents the world, and the serpent, a symbol of evil, on which Christ is standing as well as the cross, which he is holding.  To me, the artist is saying that Christ’s victory over death on the cross led him to reign over the sin of the world.
 In his painting, Boeckhorst uses color and light to complete his image of repentance and absolution from sin.  With respect to color choice, one of his most important decisions was to depict Christ’s flesh as being pale.  This is symbolic, in that, white stands for purity and is appropriate because Christ is free from sin.  Boeckhorst’s decision could also have been to make Christ stand out more and thus to draw the viewer’s attention.  The barren background, which is done in earth tones of deep greens and browns, suggests the desolation felt by the sinners.  The dull background also helps to focus the viewer’s attention on the intimate encounter between Christ and the sinners.  To contrast with the gloom and despair resulting from the dark hues used in the background, the artist incorporates light into the painting.  Another use of light in the work is to symbolize Christ as the “light of the world.”  Light, which is also frequently associated with vision, might be representative of the true vision of Christ that is available to Christians when they repent from their sin and seek forgiveness from God.
 Artistic works are often inspired as a result of events currently shaping the economic, political, or religious situation.  Johann Boeckhorst’s The Triumphant Christ Forgiving Penitent Sinners is no exception, in that, the painting addresses one of the most contested religious disputes of the seventeenth century, the nature of sin and repentance.  Crucial to interpreting this work, like any other piece of art, is to examine various elements, such as the artist’s use of characters, symbolic objects, color, and light.  It is through analyzing these areas that I arrived at a purpose behind Boeckhorst’s work.  In my opinion, his goal in depicting the scene of Christ forgiving the sinners was not only to convey his pro-Catholic position, but also to cause the people of his time to contemplate what they believed and consequently to take a definitive stand.
 
 
 
 

Works Cited
1.   Available:  www.unc.edu/depts/ackland