John 19:4–5

Ecce Homo

Morazzone and Giovanni and Melchiorre d'Enrico

Ecce Homo, c.1608–18, Polychrome wood and fresco, Sacro Monte di Varallo, Vercelli; Photo: © Rebecca Gill

Pilgrim and Judge

Commentary by Rebecca Gill

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Perched high on the hill above the town of Varallo in Italy stands the chapel of Ecce Homo, one of forty-five chapels that constitute the Sacro Monte (Holy Mountain). Originally founded in 1486, this pilgrimage site recreates—through its sequence of chapels and the sculpted scenes housed inside—the narrative of the life and Passion of Christ.

The chapel of Ecce Homo belongs to a later phase in the Sacro Monte’s history when, in the early seventeenth century, the section dedicated to Pilate’s palace was redeveloped. Central to this was the construction of a replica of the Scala Santa from the Lateran Palace in Rome. According to Roman Catholic tradition, the twenty-eight steps of the Scala Santa were those that Jesus climbed on his way to be tried by Pontius Pilate; they were brought from Jerusalem to Rome by St Helena in the fourth century. At the Sacro Monte, pilgrims would ascend these twenty-eight steps on their knees (as in Rome), before being met at the summit by the screen marking the entrance to the Ecce Homo chapel.

The chapel’s fretwork screen is penetrated by viewing holes that give onto the sculpted scene beyond. The height of the holes forces devotees to kneel, making them assume a reverential pose that shapes their experience. The holes also frame what pilgrims are able to view, directing their gaze and affecting their perception of the scene. 

From this prescribed position, peering through the deliberately placed hole, the viewer is confronted by the life-size figures of the jeering mob gathered outside a reconstruction of Pilate’s palace. From a balcony above, Pilate presents to the crowd the humiliated figure of Christ, enacting the words, ‘Behold the man!’, while below the crowds raise their arms with such energy that you can almost hear them shout ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ (John 19:4–6).  The screen effectively transports pilgrims into the scene, placing them amongst the angry mob. It forces the devotee to stand in judgement upon Christ and confront humankind’s role in the events that led to his death.



Benzan, Carla. 2014. 'Doubling Matters: The Place of the Image at the Sacro Monte of Varallo (c.1590–1630)' (unpublished PhD thesis, University College London), pp. 60–103

Moore, Kathryn Blair. 2017. The Architecture of the Christian Holy Land: Reception from Late Antiquity through the Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 269–70

Mark Wallinger

Ecce Homo, 1999, White marbleized resin, gold-painted barbed wire, Life-size, Installation view: St Paul's Cathedral, London; © Mark Wallinger / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London; Photo: Matthew Chattle / Alamy Live News

Divine Destiny

Commentary by Rebecca Gill

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Made of white marbelized resin and cast from a human figure, Mark Wallinger’s Ecce Homo presents a different image of Christ from earlier representations of the moment when Pilate presents Christ to the crowd (John 19:4–6). Rather than an image of a suffering Christ in the Man of Sorrows tradition, Wallinger presents us with a serene Christ, his eyes closed, his flesh free from the wounds inflicted at the flagellation, the perfection of his skin emphasized by the marble-like quality of the resin. 

While the face and body are calm, Christ’s suffering is acknowledged by the crown of thorns rendered in gold-plated barbed wire, the horror of which is emphasized by the contrast with his porcelain skin. The only other reference to the events that preceded this moment are Christ’s hands, bound behind his back, but these hands rest calmly in their shackles, palms open, the fingers relaxed.

Conceived in 1999 for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, Ecce Homo appeared again in 2017, this time on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Its reappearance was the result of a collaboration between the cathedral and Amnesty International.

Once again, this life-size figure of Christ could be found in a public forum, the steps and portico of St Paul’s standing in for Pilate’s palace, and the passing public occupying the role of the crowd. In this setting Wallinger’s figure emanated a sense of calm, the closed eyes and passive face suggesting that while he waits for us to pass judgement, he has already come to terms with what is to come.

As Wallinger acknowledged in 2001, ‘For a believer this is the moment when the human Christ faces up to his divine destiny. For the nonbeliever this is the point when a political prisoner … is placed before a lynch mob’ (Mason 2001: 24). This duality is amplified by Amnesty International’s involvement in the 2017 installation at St Paul’s, prompting the viewer to consider the plight of all prisoners and giving an extra layer of meaning to the barbed wire that both crowns Christ and encircles the candle of Amnesty International’s logo.



Koestlé-Cate, Jonathan. 2016. ‘Blind Faith in the City: Mark Wallinger and the Religious Imaginary’, in Visualising a Sacred City: London, Art and Religion, ed. by Ben Quash, Aaron Rosen, Chloë Reddaway (London: I.B. Tauris), pp. 295–308

Mason, Andrea. 2001. ‘Ecce “Oxymoron”’, The Art Newspaper, 120: 24

Adrien Ysenbrandt

Christ Crowned with Thorns (Ecce Homo), and the Mourning Virgin, c.1530–40, Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, 105.4 x 92.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Rogers Fund, 1904, 04.32,

A Sorrowful Man

Commentary by Rebecca Gill

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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

Morazzone and Giovanni and Melchiorre d'Enrico :

Ecce Homo, c.1608–18 , Polychrome wood and fresco

Mark Wallinger :

Ecce Homo, 1999 , White marbleized resin, gold-painted barbed wire

Adrien Ysenbrandt :

Christ Crowned with Thorns (Ecce Homo), and the Mourning Virgin, c.1530–40 , Oil on canvas, transferred from wood

Activating the Spectator

Comparative commentary by Rebecca Gill

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Pilate’s declaration ‘Here is the man!’ is a pivotal moment, for at that point the baton is passed from Pilate to the mob.

Having made the statement that he, as the one wielding judicial authority, finds no case against him, Pilate then shows Christ to the assembled people. At his invitation to look at Christ, they take to themselves the mantle of judge with the words, ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’ (John 19:4–6).  It is a significant moment and one which is played upon in depictions of the Ecce Homo where, more often than not, the spectator is cast in the role of the crowd.

This is something that is explored in the chapel of Ecce Homo at the Sacro Monte, in Adrien Ysenbrandt’s panel and in Mark Wallinger’s sculpture. In all three, the viewer is made to stand in judgement upon Christ. This interaction is made more compelling by the employment of life-size, or near life-size, figures.  At the Sacro Monte, the sculptures that populate the chapel of Ecce Homo are life-size; Mark Wallinger’s figure of Christ is cast from a human figure; and the size of Ysenbrandt’s panel at just over a metre high, means that his Christ is also nearly life-size. In all three works, the human scale of the figures means that when the spectator stands before these images they do so ‘man-to-man’.

Of course, the precise nature of this interaction varies. At the Sacro Monte, the employment of the screen and the arrangement of the sculpted figures inside the chapel mean that when spectators look through the viewing hole they are immediately placed amongst the crowd, with the implication that they too stand in judgement. By contrast, Ysenbrandt uses not only scale, but also composition, to emphasize the role of the viewer, placing the large figures of Christ and his mother at the very front of the painting. This confrontational arrangement makes it impossible for viewers to negate their role, bringing them face-to-face with the man on whom they stand in judgement. Similarly, from its temporary location at the top of the steps to St Paul’s, the public could come face-to-face with Wallinger’s sculpture of Christ, in their role as judge.

All three works are unflinching in the way they ask viewers to stand in judgement and therefore to question their role, and the role of humankind, in the events of the Passion. In embodying the role of a person in the crowd, spectators therefore complete the narrative of the Ecce Homo passage. Without them the Passion story would remain untold.

In the case of the Ecce Homo chapel at the Sacro Monte, that story is illustrated in full, scrupulously following the accounts in the gospels. This is in contrast to the Ysenbrandt painting where the story is condensed down to its essential elements: Christ, and the symbols of his passion (the column, scourge, and bundle of twigs). This act of paring back the narrative to just the essentials is part of a wider trend in which the scene of the Ecce Homo is often reduced to a close up of Christ, Pilate, and the guards, sometimes with the addition of a mocking bystander.

The replacement of Pilate with the figure of the Virgin Mary in the Ysenbrandt work deviates from the narrative, for there is no mention in John’s Gospel of the Virgin being present. Her inclusion here, however, is explained by the devotional function of the painting, which casts her in the role of prayerful guide.  

Wallinger takes the trend to condense the narrative one step further, reducing the scene to just the figure of Christ. As in the Ysenbrandt painting, however, the crown of thorns and the bound hands act as signposts to the events that led to this moment. As contemporary viewers of these works of art, we of course also know what comes after this moment, unlike the first century crowd that gathered outside Pilate’s palace. They cannot know the consequences of their call to ‘Crucify him!’. With the benefit of hindsight, it is our job as spectators to dwell on those consequences and confront the uncomfortable truth of humankind’s role in the events of the Passion of Christ in particular, and, more broadly speaking, the ways in which we stand in judgement on our fellow humans. 



Koestlé-Cate, Jonathan. 2016. ‘Blind Faith in the City: Mark Wallinger and the Religious Imaginary’, in Visualising a Sacred City: London, Art and Religion, ed. by Ben Quash, Aaron Rosen, Chloë Reddaway (London: I.B. Tauris), pp. 295–308

Next exhibition: John 19:17

John 19:4–5

Revised Standard Version

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!”