Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Christ’s Entry into Brussels and James Ensor’s Obsession with Religiosity

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889

James Ensor’s Christ’s Entry into Brussels is one of his most famous works, painted during his obsession with religious themes and is considered a precursor to expressionism and of significant influence on many modern works of art since. In this article, Singulart examines the life of James Ensor and the meaning of Christ’s Entry into Brussels as well as its place within the history of art and its influence on modern art. 

Who was James Ensor? 

James Ensor (1860-1949) was a Belgian painter and printmaker who had a great influence on Expressionism and Surrealism. He was born in Brussels to English parents and spent most of his childhood in the family curiosity shop, which is thought to have influenced his choice of imagery in his later works, which included masks, carnivals, bright colors and eccentric costumes, interwoven with a sense of drama and satire. 

James Ensor photographed while painting in his studio in Ostend, 1933. Photo: Spaarnestad Photo/Bridgeman Images. Artworks: © DACS 2018

At first, his work was widely criticised and rejected as scandalous, however he continued to paint and exhibit his work which was gradually accepted and acclaimed, with his painting The Lamp Boy (1880) being bought by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in 1895. By 1920 he was exhibiting internationally, and Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York described him as the boldest painter of his day. After this success in the early twentieth century, he began to abandon painting in favor of music, despite his lack of musical training and he remained in Ostend throughout World War II until his death in 1949. 

What’s happening in Christ’s Entry into Brussels? 

James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889
James Ensor, Christ’s Entry into Brussels, 1889

Between 1888 and 1892 Ensor went through a turning point in his work, when he turned his attention to religious themes and the figure of Jesus Christ. This monumental painting should be among the most iconic works of Modern art: it was inspired by Manet’s scandalous Olympia and influenced Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, however due to the fact that it remained in the private collection of the Belgian banker Louis Franck until 1987, it did not receive as much public attention as it deserved. The Getty Museum purchased it in 1987 for an estimated price of between $7-8 million and it is now a crucial part of their collection. 

Measuring 252 x 430 cm, this immense canvas depicts a scene of a crowd, as the title indicates, of Christ entering Brussels. Under a large red banner stating: “Vive la Sociale” and other smaller banners stating: “Vive Jesus. Rue de Bruxelles” and in among the swirling mass of the crowd, the small figure of Jesus with a gold halo is easily lost in the center of the composition. Most of the figures in this composition, with the exception of Jesus, are masked and wear costumes, from skeletons to soldiers, clowns to mime artists, transforming the procession into more of a sinister mob scene surrounding Jesus. It is in this way that Ensor combines many of the themes and symbols of his works into this one composition, creating a confusing, intense, macabre show. Christ’s Entry into Brussels is not simply a religious scene, but a carnival, a military parade, and a mob scene all at once. One could imagine that if the narrative of this sinister scene were to continue, it might almost result in a second crucifixion of Christ. This surreal interpretation of religious themes suggests a certain disdain and disgust for humanity, or rather the inhumanity of the world that upholds such contradictory views. 

Ensor and Modernism 

Although Ensor is considered more of a forefather of Modernism in general, as most of his signature works such as Christ’s Entry into Brussels were painted before the 20th century, this composition can be seen to incarnate several crucial elements of modernist painting. Its modernism is most specifically expressed by the confrontation it demands and the iconoclasm it embodies. Just as the figures in Christ’s Entry into Brussels seem to harass Jesus, so the composition itself confronts the viewer with its aggressive color palette and the intense, expressive quality of the painting. With this, the flags, figures and the entire street scene come to life, as if marching towards the viewer, the sounds and horrors of Ensor’s imagined parade threaten to continue past the frame and invade this side of the canvas.

See similar artworks in Singulart’s Inspired by Singulart.

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