Imagining Ecce Homo

In the coming days, many of us will construct an image of Jesus standing before “the Powers.” Such constructions freight the weight of biblical passages like Isaiah 53:7, Philippians 2:6-8, or John 19:5 and are grist for personal reflection in the Easter season.

“Ecce Homo,” as imagined by the 16th century Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Note elements contemporary with the artist’s own time such as the polearms in the center of the scene or the round white Tülbend on the head of the man on the right. Image from here.

The fourth gospel adds the words ecce homo to the image. The phrase rises from the throat of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilatus, who presents Jesus to a mob. In this context, Pilate has already interrogated and flogged his prisoner. Exasperated by his inability to find any legal substance for claims against the accused, he presents him to those gathered outside the praitōrion (palace). The more familiar phrase is drawn not from the original Greek (which reads ide ho anthrōpos) but from a translation known as the Latin Vulgate: “Behold, the man” (John 19:5). Jesus stands by silently, bloodied and humiliated, dressed in the sick masquerade of a king.

“Ecce Homo” or “Christ Presented to the People,” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1655). Notice the stiff symmetry of the “stage,” buildings, and arches. Several versions of this drypoint have been preserved, each showing a reworking of select details of the scene. This image is from here.

It is a theatrical moment not lost on Christian artists. Among the list of Ecce Homo painters are some of the world’s greatest brushmen (Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cerezo, Munkácsy, etc) and a few not-so-great (Google the sad restoration of Elías García Martínez’s work, dubbed Ecce Mono!). As my eyes flip between these presentations, I look for the figure of the suffering Christ, the angry or befuddled Pilate, or the surging crowd. Each artist combines and imagines these elements differently.

“Ecce Homo” by Antonio Ciseri (1871). Image from here.

For me, the scene envisioned by Antonio Ciseri is the most powerful. His late 19th century work offers a lean (albeit, quite caucasian) Jesus. His crowned head dips and his purple garment slides to the floor, exposing his shoulder and back. As for Pilate, it is his outstretched arm and fingers, not his Roman face, that is at the center. But it is the careful backlighting that makes it all work: the folds of the prefect’s garment are translucent, while his wife, in contrast, is completely opaque; she is hidden by shadow. Just enough light is offered the observer to watch her turn away, eyes closed. Anxiety fills the faces of the rest who gather around the judgment seat. No one is stiff; they lean forward or backward and are obviously anxious as the crowd roars. It is an electric moment.

While personally communicative, however, Ciseri’s work is hardly accurate from an historical perspective. The palace in the background is more at home in Pharaonic Egypt than in Roman Palestine. Likewise the proud column (complete with scrollwork) standing in the midst of the courtyard is the kind of edifice one would expect to cast a shadow in Rome’s forum, not a courtyard in a provincial capital like Jerusalem.

Such criticism leads me to Balage Balogh. Balogh is a contemporary artist who trained in Budapest, Hungary, before immigrating to the United States. What sets his work apart is his attention to historical detail. He works regularly within the archaeological community and has generously contributed his talents to those of us who work in the area the of Mediterranean basin in general, and Israel-Palestine specifically.

Balage Balogh’s reconstruction of “Ecce Homo,” found in James Tabor’s book, The Jesus Dynasty (2006).

Balogh may be the finest archaeological illustrator of our generation. His presentation of ecce homo was prepared in close communication with excavators working immediately south and below the Tower of David (and the Kishle). His scene captures the area immediately to the west of Jerusalem’s “first wall.” A single figure is illuminated by the morning light that streams through the gate leading to the Herodian palace. Tiny figures stand on a platform at the stop of a grand staircase. We can only imagine Pilate somewhere among them. All of these are unapproachable. Armed soldiers create the distance and keep us at bay.

While the scene admittedly lacks creative personality, it is no less theatrical. It achieves an “update” in our ability to accurately visualize this physical space. More importantly, it takes us one step closer to the event that it portrays.

Note:  A link to Balage Balogh’s website is available here.