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Ecce Homo

Pilate presents Christ to the People

Henri Blès (ca. 1480-1550). Museum Boymans – van Beuningen – Rotterdam.

Ecce Homo

Tiziano Vecellio (ca. 1488-1576). National Gallery of Ireland – Dublin. 1558-1560.

Ecce Homo

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. University of Birmingham. – Birmingham. 1625-1626.

John recalls in most detail the second trial of Jesus before Pilate.

When Pilate had had Jesus scourged, he came outside to the Jews again and said to them, “Look, I am going to bring him out to you to let you see that I find no case against him.” Jesus then came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said, “Here is the man.” When they saw him, the chief priests and the guards shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews replied, “We have a Law and according to that Law he ought to be put to death, because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard them say this his fears increased. Re-entering the Praetorium, he said to Jesus, “Where do you come from?” But Jesus made no answer. Pilate then said to him, “Are you refusing to speak to me? Surely you know I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me at all if it had not been given you from above; that is why the man who handed me over to you has the greater guilt.”
From that moment Pilate was anxious to set him free, but the Jews shouted, “If you set him free you are no friend of Caesar’s; anyone who makes himself king is defying Caesar.” Hearing these words, Pilate had Jesus brought out, and seated him on the chair of judgement at a place called the Pavement, in Hebrew Gabbatha. It was the Day of Preparation, about the sixth hour. “Here is your king,” said Pilate to the Jews. But they shouted, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him.” Pilate said, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king except Caesar.” So at that Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. G38

Jesus is shown twice to the assembled Jews. The first time Pilate says, “Behold the man”, or “Ecce Homo”. The second time he shouts, “Here is your king”. Jesus is shown to the Jews crowned in thorns and with a purple mantle of mockery. Jesus is blooded and in pain. This is the image after the scourging by which Pilate tried to induce pity in the Jews. But both calls on the mob of Jews, chief priests and guards were to no avail. The Jews wanted Jesus crucified. This is a crucial scene in Jesus’ passion and many painters have painted Jesus in this final image of suffering in front of the crowds.

Henri Blès

Henri Blès worked in the first half of the sixteenth century. Not much is known for certain of his life, but he came from the village of Bouvignes near the towns of Dinant and Namur in Belgium. He worked first in Antwerp and later in various towns of Italy. He would have died and been buried in Ferrara. Blès was a landscape painter and may have been a namesake of the family of Joachim Patenier, the other great landscape painter of the river Meuse. Among Blès’ favourite themes are the stories of the Gospels that lend themselves easily to landscape painting: the ‘Preaching of Saint John the Baptist’, the ‘On the Road to Emmaüs’, ‘Saint Jerome’, ‘Road to Calvary’ and the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’. Blès also liked to picture many miniature figures, crowds, and he added these in his scenes of John the Baptist’s preachings or in his paintings of the Calvary.

Henri Blès made one town scene and it is this one, not typical for his art, which we present. This theme was not familiar for Blès for he copied it from an earlier painting made by Jan van Amstel or Pieter Aertsen B17 . Blès’ painting is a ‘Pilate presenting Christ to the People’. A crowd has gathered in the courtyard before a palace complex. Jesus is shown on the top of monumental stairs. Blès liked to paint many small figures and therefore he must have found delight in this crowd of tens of figures, all dressed in an oriental way with turbans, pin hats, long cloaks and with some wearing curbed swords. The people are screaming to have Jesus crucified. The figures in the background are not always smaller than those of the foreground. Look for instance at the people leaning over the balustrade of the Saint Sepulchre building. The balustrade is far too large to be credible and so are the figures as compared to for instance Jesus. Yet, Blès painted all small figures in detail. No figure resembles the other and all have different poses. His figures are wonderfully miniaturised. But many of the figures are to our sophisticated eyes almost clumsily depicted.

Blès made the picture mainly in two tones of colour, ultramarine blue like in the sky and cupolas and red or brown hues like in the sand of the courtyard. The courtyard is in front of a palace that vaguely reminds of the Saint Sepulchre church of Jerusalem. Blès copied also the balustrade from his example, but this element was definitely not present in the real Saint Sepulchre building. Blès copied the entire scene, with all towers and cupolas and Renaissance palaces. He used perspective, but not all lines recede as they should do and the foreshortening of the figures is not always right.

But the scene still efficiently tells the story. Pilate has brought Jesus before the crowds. Jesus is held between two guards, one of whom holds an impossible long lance. Jesus wears the blue-purple cloak and the guards open the cloak to show the marks of torture on Jesus. Thus, almost naked and helpless, Jesus is offered to the compassion of the crowd. But the crowd is furious and excited and hundreds refuse him with upheld arms of anger. All cry, ‘Away with him, to the cross!’

Several scenes are painted in the same frame, so there is no unity of time, as was the case in many medieval pictures. In the middle right, Jesus is being flagellated at the column of a gallery and this scene can be seen through the right arcades. Then Jesus is led by guards to be shown to the crowds. On the far right Roman soldiers already prepare the three crosses whereas on the left, between the arcades again, opens a view on the road to the hills of Golgotha.

Henri Blès made a touching naïve picture of the scene of ‘Pilate showing Christ’. He showed a scene that must have impressed him enough to want to copy it. It shows Jesus being presented publicly, one of the ‘Ecce Homo’ themes, in a medieval, primitive way. Compare this picture with the sophistication of Botticelli’s pictures and one may wonder how a painter like Blès could have success in Italy. Blès was skilled in views with myriad figures and details of nature that amazed and interested. He brought his naïve views, which at all times have touched people and he presented to Italy his cosmic landscapes for landscape’s sake, a novelty in southern art.

Tiziano and van Dyck

Titian and van Dyck have made ‘Ecce Homo’ pictures of the private, more intimate theme. Van Dyck, the painter from Antwerp, admired Titian and used this artist’s example. Titian’s painting dates from around 1558 to 1660, when Titian was about seventy years old. We are already in Titian’s darker period, but his colours had still a warmer tone, they were not yet as pessimistic as they would be later.

Colour is rich in Titian’s picture, especially in the soft tones of the purple mantle that hangs deep around Jesus’ shoulders. Jesus wears the reeds that were given him as a sceptre, which reminds of the second time Pilate called on the Jews and showed them Jesus as a king. Jesus has a powerful breast and arms. Bruises are to be seen on his wrists where the ropes have cut into his flesh and drops of blood have fallen from his head on his shoulders. Jesus inclines his head in weariness. His face is in shadows as if he was ashamed of his state, but a splendid light surrounds him and indicates his holiness. Thus, Titian showed the contrast between the godly descent of Jesus and his suffering during this moment of the passion. Jesus is not represented as a victorious or arrogant Son of God, but as a simple human in pain and shame. This is very forceful representation, the result of all the compassion and empathy Titian perceived when reflecting on Jesus’ state of mind. Titian felt deeply into his work; he has imagined what emotions could have gone through the mind of Jesus at that moment. He could well feel as Jesus since he was so old and had death close by. Older painters often make their most powerful pictures late in age and seem to emphasise the suffering human, as if they had their fill of all the injustice they had seen during their long life. Such was evidently the case with Titian for several pictures of Jesus’ torture, as if the artist had grown weary of all the injustice he had seen but not approved nor had been able to straighten during his life.

Anthony van Dyck has taken again Titian as an example. His work dates from 1625 or 1626 while he was in Genoa. He had departed from Antwerp and had travelled some in Italy. He had copied Titian’s pictures and even owned a version of Titian’s ‘Mocking of Christ’. His admiration for the Venetian painter was immense.

Just as in Titian’s work Jesus keeps his head in resignation and sorrow low and to the left. Rays grow out of Jesus’ head, but van Dyck has less emphasised this aspect. Jesus wears the crown of thorns and the same black beard as in Titian’s work. However, van Dyck has innovated on Jesus’ body, which is resplendent in light and beauty. Here we sense the difference between van Dyck and Titian. Titian’s painting is all about the expression of an emotion and of deep sympathy with the figure of Jesus. Van Dyck is more the outward artist. Even though the same feelings are conveyed, anybody coming before van Dyck’s painting will admire it and be seized by instant admiration at the effect. Jesus’ body is equally powerful as in Tiziano’s image, but van Dyck has pictured a glorious body without blemish. Whereas Titian hangs a purple mantle on Jesus’ shoulders and thus stays close to the narration of the Gospels, van Dyck has let a dark blue-green robe fall low to Jesus’ waist to attract the eyes of the viewers immediately and fully to Jesus’ carefully depicted torso. Still, in the very dark background a grinning soldier holds a very dark but purple mantle around Jesus’ shoulders. To add to the drama of the picture, van Dyck imagined Jesus with hands bound and here also we can admire the painter’s skills at the wonderfully drawn hands of Jesus. As much emotion is here in the resigned way Jesus lets his hands hang without force.

Van Dyck was much younger than Titian when he made his painting. This difference of age of course shows through. Titian’s Jesus is resigned and in the shadows of life, whereas van Dyck’s Jesus remains a youth ever glorifying while he is suffering. Force and elegance thus contrast in two paintings that are almost equally powerful. Both artists showed a man, but van Dyck brought the idealised vision of a deity back in Titian’s image of humanity.

Other paintings:

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