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Pilate washing his Hands

Pilate washing his Hands

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). The Clore Gallery – London. 1830.

Matthew tells that at Festival time it was the governor’s practice to release a prisoner for the people, anyone they chose. Now there was then a notorious prisoner whose name was Barabbas. So when the crowd gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Which do you want me to release for you: Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For Pilate knew it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over G38 .

Now as he was seated in the chair of judgement, his wife sent him a message, ‘Have nothing to do with that upright man; I have been extremely upset today by a dream that I had about him’. The chief priests and the elders however, had persuaded the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus. So when the governor spoke and asked them, ’Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ they said, ‘Barabbas’. Pilate said to them, ‘But what am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified.’ He asked, ‘But what harm has he done?’ But they shouted all the louder, ‘Let him be crucified!’ G38

Then Pilate saw that he was making no impression, that in fact a riot was imminent. So he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd and said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your concern.’ And the people, every one of them, shouted back, ‘Let this blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas for them. After having Jesus scourged he handed him over to be crucified G38 .

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in 1775 in a street of Covent Garden, London. He lived by his art already as a very young man, selling his watercolours in his father’s barbershop. He sent his first oil painting to the Royal Academy in 1790. It was accepted and indeed exhibited during the Academy’s summer exhibition in London. Turner was of modest descent, but his genius was recognised early. He was elected an Associate Member of the Academy in 1799 and a Full Member in 1802.

Turner was famous in 1830 when he painted ‘Pilate washing his Hands’. He was a fully accomplished artist by then and he was amassing a considerable fortune. He had made voyages to Italy; his last travel to Rome dated from 1828. He had painted portraits, landscapes, marines and pictures of classical themes. But Turner rarely had handled religious themes so that ‘Pilate washing his Hands’ remains an exception in his oeuvre.

The picture is an exception in more than that one respect. We do recognise Turner’s spectacular own style. The painting is in glowing colours with the yellows and browns dominating as in many of his pictures. The figures and background structures are only hinted at. Nervous confusion is in the picture and the main theme is difficult to discern. The whole picture is painted as if the artist had his eyes half closed and saw the scene vaguely as in a haze. By that haze, the warm colours overwhelm us with soft emotions.

The centre of the picture contains Mary, Jesus’ mother, as well as a second woman who is probably Mary Magdalene, leaning against Mary. Other women surround Jesus’ mother. Pilate washing his hands may be standing to the left with his back to the viewer. Pilate is a monstrous fluffy shape of superposed colour areas, only to be recognised because he holds a towel in his left hand. All around this central scene are tens of figures of which scarcely a hint of faces is suggested here and there, or a piece of a turban, or the line of a lance. With these frugal means Turner has suggested a considerable crowd.

Turner painted old symbols of Jesus’ Passion and life. A young girl is seated at the feet of the Virgin. This girl holds a child in her arms. On the left a woman is standing with another child at her hand. These may be two stages in the lives of Mary and Jesus. Thus, Turner recalled the process of the visual arts of the Middle Ages times when unity of time was not respected and various scenes from different periods were shown in one picture.

One might expect the figure of the High Priest to be to the right of Mary, the only figure in which a little blue colour is applied to suggest the splendid ritual robes. Jesus is to the right of this High Priest. His figure is barely recognisable. Only his face is clear. The cross blends with the background. Jesus wears the crown of thorns and he is bent under the cross. Only a Roman silvery helmet indicates that Jesus is being led and pushed forward.

Behind Mary towers what could be a high offering altar or the curtains that shield Pilate from the crowd. This emphasises the verticals and the direction Mary is looking to. Above that is a ghostly white image of what could be the face of God. As always in Turner’s pictures, at least in those after the 1820s, we sense that what was most important for this artist was his feeling of the emotions in colours.

Turner expressed his feelings in colours. He cannot be called an Impressionist, but he was utmost interested in colours and in colour theory. One of his last paintings, dating of 1843 – Turner died in 1851- was called ‘Light and Colour, Goethe’s Theory, the Morning after the Deluge, Moses writing the Book of Genesis.’ Needless to say, also in this painting Moses is only alluded at. A long sentence is needed to help the imagination of the viewer plunge into the atmosphere of the picture and yet deduct a meaning. Turner sought to depict emotions and to show feelings in colours of varying shades. Colours had emotional content. Thus the dark browns surround Jesus, browns as the wood of the cross. Jesus’ ghostly pale face appears only as a reference for our imagination to reconstruct by our own feelings the carrying of the cross.

The centre scene of the picture is very white, a radiating white, and the Virgin is looking upwards in an appeal to God. The vertical lines behind Mary emphasise the direction. Where have we seen that same image of a white centre and dark figures, the upward appealing glance, the figures receding in shadows, here and there only a lively colour patch? This is all Rembrandt and ‘Simeon's Song’, so thickly underscored as for this picture to be a pastiche. The thick cloaks of Pilate remember of Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ picture in which the husband is enveloped in thick clothes. In the lower part of Turner’s frame, fowl lies on the ground as in Dutch genre pictures with scenes of children. Turner may have viewed his painting of a theme of the New Testament as an exercise in style. Maybe he was trying to find out whether he could compete in colours with the greatest of the Dutch artists. But Turner obstinately remained himself and this picture, though lending style elements from Rembrandt, remains original in the shading of the colours, in the composition and the expression. Rembrandt had not the wealth of colours of Turner, though he well knew them and nothing withheld him from using them. Rembrandt’s vision was dark. But Rembrandt would not have shown the figures with the complex confusion and vagueness of Turner, nor so many. Rembrandt’s liberty of expression had not gone so far yet.

Turner lived in his later years much as a recluse. He liked the public. He had held exhibitions in his own house. He had given courses on perspective at the Royal Academy and he had travelled to Italy. He had learned the history of art and he knew the artists that had changed the style of painting before him. In 1830 Turner had the financial means not to need to depend from anybody. He had a definite love for solitude and independence. He had the liberty and the desire to paint as he felt and to experiment. He was as powerfully original as the strongest painters of history were. Turner did not have many followers in England and on the continent but the power of his innovation is comparable to that of Caravaggio or Rembrandt. The French Impressionists went further along the road, on which Turner had been one of the first if not the absolute first. No painter before him had shown such liberty in expression using only colour and fading subjects. Yet in many of his pictures, Turner obstinately kept detailed figures, such as Mary in ‘Pilate washing his Hands’, and he reserved vagueness for the background, for sky and water and ancient columned palaces.

In his later paintings, like the ‘Pilate washing his Hands’, Turner’s figures also were painted in less detail and they were becoming background themselves. Thus, Turner was very close to abstraction, to pictures consisting of colour only with the subject matter only indicated in the long title. But the title was always present, with an unequivocal story. The longer the title, the more Turner left to the imagination of the viewer and the more mysterious and private became the visual representation of whirling colour areas. Turner’s ‘Pilate washing his Hands’ was one of the firsts of this kind of works.

The inspiration to handle New Testament scenes was Rembrandt’s, not Turner’s. This picture was the only one of religious scenes of Turner. He returned to nature, and to his memories of Venice, to the marvellous Venetian sun. His paintings were more and more the representation of his innermost emotions and he almost reached abstraction. Turner sought spirituality in his solitude. The visions of his mind were in colour and he reached out for the light. The warmth of his colours and the brilliance that almost always formed the centre gives an impression of eternity. For Turner, sensitivity must have finally gained more importance than view.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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