Throughout his career, Francis Newton Souza's frequent use of religious iconography stemmed from a strict Roman Catholic upbringing and his anti-clerical stance on the hypocrisy of the church. Perceptions of sin, religion and an oppressive political order led to personal expressions and treatment on subjects like the crucifixion and the flagellation of Christ, used to portray man's brutality toward its own species.
Souza's dramatic version here, offers a scene almost like a sadistic ballet in its scale and theatricality, with the figures arranged rhythmically across the canvas. Applying an acutely observed reality to the scene, the artist sees Christ in a drooping pose but not to imply grace, he cowers on his knees from the torturer on the left whose stance is ready to strike.
The Flagellation of Christ was a traditional subject in religious art and during 16th to 17th century religious practice, the church actively encouraged the faithful to enter in the suffering of Christ, by means of self-flagellation. Among the most famous historical examples are the paintings of this subject by Caravaggio (1571-1610) and Piero della Francesca (1415-1492), as well as a fresco by Sebastiano del Piombo (1485/86-1547), all of which reside in Italy. It is highly possible that Souza viewed these in 1960 during his time in Rome, on a travel scholarship awarded by the Italian government.
Commenting on this study (illustrated) E. Alkazi observes, "The fact of being implicated in the evil of the world, of being the torturer as well as the victim, expresses itself with a frenzied masochism. Souza's paintings of sexual depravity and brutal power alternate with harrowing scenes of suffering, the starkest of which is the large drawing on canvas, the Flagellation, in which the crumpled figure of Christ, chained to a phallic post, is surrounded by four nude male figures, one of whom raises a vicious cat-o'-nine-tails. Likewise in the even bigger Crucifixion, suffering is depicted in the most ruthless manner as if to attest to a condition of body and spirit where any sophistication of treatment would be a travesty of the barbarity of the experience portrayed. Scenes of tortured martyrdom, medieval in their bleak cruelty but redeemed by no religious faith, figure prominently in Souza's oeuvre. It is as if he seeks to exculpate sinful acts by summoning up visions of the mortification and despair of the Son of God, to the extent of identifying himself with him. He seems to want to persuade God into believing that, sinner though he may be, and prey to all the temptations of the flesh, he shares with Christ his anguish. This duality is the essential content of all Souza's paintings - sexuality rising to a pitch of religious ecstasy." (E. Alkazi, Souza's Seasons in Hell, p. 77)