In this multivalent image, we see Christ in the form of Ecce Homo, his head bearing the crown of thorns that sends rivulets of blood down his brow, his shoulders draped in a cloak, his hands bound in front, while the reed-sceptre rests gently in his hand. This is Christ who was presented to the chief priests and officers of the Jews (John 19:4–6), but in this image Christ is not accompanied by Pilate, and there are no priests, no soldiers, and no jeering crowd. Instead, on Christ’s left is the figure of the Virgin, her body slightly angled towards her son, head bowed in grief and arms crossed in front of her in a gesture of compassion.
The iconography and composition of the painting brings to mind a type of devotional diptych where Christ is shown as the Man of Sorrows in one panel, while in the other the Virgin is depicted in mourning, turning to face her son. Adrien Ysenbrandt’s work certainly has the feel of a devotional painting. Stripped of the narrative elements of the Ecce Homo passage, the composition becomes a devotional instrument, prompting the viewer to meditate on Christ’s suffering, painfully underlined by his gaunt face, sad eyes, and furrowed brow.
The Gothic ogee arch depicted by Ysenbrandt separates Christ from the Virgin, reinforcing the association with devotional diptych paintings. This architectural feature serves another function, as tied to the central column that supports the arch is the scourge and bundle of twigs with which Christ was thrashed during the flagellation—a nod to the events that preceded Pilate’s presentation of Christ.
In the arch, painted to look like sculpted stone, we find a male figure wrestling with a lion. This man has been interpreted as Daniel and therefore as a reference to the Resurrection (Daniel having emerged unscathed from the lion’s den as Christ emerged victorious from the grave). Yet the figure is perhaps more likely to be a depiction of Samson who tore a lion apart with his bare hands (Judges 14:5–6). Samson too is frequently interpreted as a type of Christ the victor. Either way, the figure’s inclusion is a signal to viewers of the promise of salvation.
Ainsworth, Maryan W. and Véronique Sintobin. 1998. From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, ed. by Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp.374–77
4Pilate went out again, and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him.” 5So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”