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 'Doubling Matters: The Place of the Image at the Sacro Monte of Varallo (c.1590–1630)' (unpublished PhD thesis, University College London), pp. 60–103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