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
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!”