The Flagellants by Pieter van Laer

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The Flagellants by Pieter van Laer

Painting NameThe Flagellants
Painter NamePieter van Laer
Completion Date1635
Size82.2 x 53.6 cm (32.36" x 21.1")
TechniqueOil
MaterialCanvas
Current LocationAlte Pinakothek (Munich Bavaria Germany)

The two people in white robes with their backs wounded by their own torture pulled on themselves are called the Flagellants – the ones who torture themselves for their religious beliefs. It was a common practice Europe in around 13th and 14th century. People revered and honored them until the followers of Flagellantism aroused beyond the expectations of Roman Catholic Church and the Church denounced them heretics. After that the followers of the Flagellantism declined and people also started to ignore such self-harming religious persons. Their popularity declined drastically, though, even today, in different cultures flagellantism in different forms of self-harming exists. Whether it is the women’s self-harming in native African tribes or the 10th day of Muharram on which Muslims beat themselves in the memory of Hussein Ibn Ali. All these self-tortures falls under flagellation which are performed for various beliefs all associated with religious or devotional beliefs.

The current painting by the Dutch Golden Age artist Pieter van Laer is maybe representing the early time, when the Flagellants were welcomed in towns and cities and were considered sacred people. The church hasn’t called them as the heretics. It could be understood by the relaxed and somewhat dominion attitude of the standing flagellants. Even though, there are deep, blood-raining wounds on their backs, their stance are firm, unaffected by the pain. We can imagine that the sensation of being purified by utterly hurting themselves, the pain itself and the majorly the public’s approval of the act as a sacred thing, could give the courage and patience to tolerate the pain to the flagellants.

Moreover, in the mediaeval background, people around the flagellants also seems to be very comfortable as if it was an everyday thing for them to see a person hurting himself to the level of bleeding. Surroundings are perfectly normal or even openhearted towards the flagellants, I would say. Some of them are watching them curiously (especially the children in foreground) while a woman is giving away some coins to a beggar, the little girl with her is amused by seeing the flagellants. It is more of an amusement for normal people, than a serious cult arising slowly arising in the medieval times.

Flagellantism peaked at the time of the Black Death during the years of 1348-50. At the time, due to the lack of scientific knowledge and the heavy impressions of  religious belief in general caused people to believe it as the wrath of the god and many people joined flagellantism to ‘punish and cure’ themselves before god punishes them with the horrific black death. Flagellants would either in their house or in public come out and torture them with special whips having three metal-notched ends. During the process they would sing a song called Geisslerlieder (song of the flagellants) which was forbidden to associate with any musical instrument.

This peak of the new cult loomed as a threat to the Catholic churches and after some consequences, the church declared them as heretics. That was the breaking point for the Flagellantism movement.

The painting was executed in 1635, three centuries after the flagellantism peaked. The 32×21 inches painting is currently residing in the Germany’s Alte Pinakothek providing a glimpse of an interesting history.

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