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The Trial

Christ before Pilate

Master Lcz. Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. 1500.

The whole of the Sanhedrin rose after having interrogated Jesus, and they brought him before Pilate. So tells Luke. They began their accusation by saying, “We found this man inciting our people to revolt, opposing payment of the tribute to Caesar and claiming to be Christ, a king.” Pilate put to him this question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He replied, “It is you who say it.” Pilate then said to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no case against this man.” But they persisted. “He is inflaming the people with his teaching all over Judaea and all the way from Galilee, where he started, down to here.” When Pilate heard this, he asked if the man were a Galilean; and finding that he came under Herod’s jurisdiction, he passed him over to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time G38 .

The Sanhedrin condemned Jesus, not the Jewish people but a class of ruling elite. This elite could retain some of its old prerogatives by collaborating with the Romans. This collaboration is proven by the two trials, the one before the Sanhedrin and the other by Pilate.

‘Christ before Pilate’ of Master Lcz is a very odd picture. Here we are with figures from a magic world or from a nightmare. This could be a world of dwarfs, of little nervous men. The figures have strange, untypical faces and heads too large for their bodies, as babies have. Their features are pathetic. The gestures are artificial, very diverse. This is a picture made around 1500, when German art was still in International Gothic. Gothic has definitely influenced this painter. The folds of the cloaks are painted in all detail and the colours are very pure. But the movements and pathos are quite unusual for that period of severe dignity. For fifty years before and after Lcz such depiction of figures was not common. The only painter who came close to this style was Lucas Cranach the Elder, and indeed one proposal of identification for Master Lcz was this artist. But in other pictures Cranach the Elder did not go that far in the strange stylisation of his figures, whereas this ‘Christ before Pilate’ is one panel of a whole altarpiece painted this way. A recent name that has been proposed is that of Lorenz Katzheimer, a master of Bamberg. The panel we look at is part of a polyptych, of which the other panels are in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum at Nuremberg, in the Louvre and in private collections. The central panel is a Transfiguration. Lorenz Katzheimer was known in Bamberg and in Nuremberg around 1480 to 1500 and in his panels landscapes that remind of Bamberg have been recognised. D19 .

The figures of Lcz’ panel oddly make one think of regional anonymous artists and sculptors who exaggerated all show of emotions in order to more easily impress the naïve country viewers with their message. This painter had more than normal skills though. He was certainly a professional, for his detail is impeccably drawn. He knew the balance of colours to enhance the composition of the figures. Thus Jesus and his foremost accusers are painted in the same green and blue colours to contrast them with the Pilate in red and with the browns of the right side of the picture.

The picture feels of an earthy primitivism. It induces primitive feelings of danger and violence in the viewer. Look at the expression of Pilate and at the boar-like face of the soldier who pushes forward Christ with the handle of his steel axe. Remark the cold, Roman style small window and the whirling skies beyond. These are all the primeval ingredients of nightmarish fear assembled in one panel. And especially, there is a very unusual setting of the checkerboard tiles on the ground, forming lines that are in total conflict with any perspective that might be present in the picture. All is skewed, distorted as these tile patterns. Pilate is a weird magician with his pinned hat and he wears a long stick as sceptre. He has long, strangely pointed shoes at his feet and even thus stands on the feet of a plaintive. The painter knew of course the story of the Gospels very well, for Pilate makes a movement of refusal. He holds his hand up to push back the Jews. This hand effectively throws back the pressure of the crowd. All sorts of arms are held high, one more menacing and cruel than the other, no two the same. Cruelty and menace are the central themes of this picture. Jesus looks an innocent child brought before the ultimate witch master.

These entire elements makes one suspect this picture might have been deliberately painted this way and that it is not merely the result of a naïve unskilled hand. Painter Lcz must have known the pictures of other German artists of before his period, for instance those of Konrad Witz and of Martin Schongauer. Lcz’s vision is entirely different, as if he had deliberately returned to a more primitive expression of the regional German amateur painters. Master Lcz’s mind may have been full with these very particular images as such. We are indeed inclined to see this as a representation of early German mind, had we not known all the marvellous painters of before Lcz. Lcz was a very individual painter who has brought a hallucinating view on Jesus’ trial. His picture deranges, shocks viewers, which might have been exactly the effect Master Lcz sought.

The twenty-eight steps that Jesus ascended in the house of Pontius Pilate to go to his trial were according to legend recovered by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. The steps were brought to Rome and placed in the Lateran Palace, the first palace of the Popes. Before the Popes moved to Avignon in 1309; this was the official residence of the Popes. The old Lateran Palace was destroyed however by fire in the fourteenth century, in 1308. The steps were moved under pope Sixtus V to a new building, designed by Domenico Fontana and constructed in 1586-1589, which contained surviving parts of the palace. This building is now in front of the Popes’ church of San Giovanni in Laterano.

San Giovanni in Laterano was once Rome’s first Christian basilica, built by Emperor Constantine on land seized from the Laterani family. The church was rebuilt several times; its current interior dates from 1646 and was designed by Francesco Borromini. The main façade is an 18th century addition. But the octagonal Baptistery, next to the basilica, adorned with magnificent frescoes and mosaics, still dates back to Constantine’s times. Next to San Giovanni in Laterano stand the new Lateran Palace. Until 1870 all the Popes were crowned in this church.

The stairs are called the Scala Santa. No foot may touch the steps so they are covered by wooden boards. They may only be climbed by the devout on their knees and still today you can see pilgrims, sometimes handicapped people hoping for a miracle, going up the Scala Santa on their knees. The Scala Santa leads to the Sancta Sanctorum, a chapel built by Pope Nicholas III in 1278. This is a chapel dedicated to Saint Lawrence, but it contains a very old golden polyptych that contains the ‘Acheiropoeton’, or ‘picture painted without hands’. The Acheiropoeton is supposedly an image of the face of Jesus, a painting made by Saint Luke with the help of an angel. The picture was shown in processions in the Middle Ages to ward off plagues. So, memories go back very far in Rome around the first Christian church in Rome. They go back to Jesus’ face and to his suffering in Pontius Pilate’s praetorium.

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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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