This is a guest post by painter and art critic Brian Prugh, I think he knows that I’m obsessed with this Titian painting. MR
As we near the end of Lent and approach the holy week liturgies, we prepare to look more closely at Christ, the man, approaching his death. It is this particular kind of looking that is the subject of Titian’s Ecce Homo (“Behold, the man”), a late (and unfinished) painting of Christ being shown to the people. This is his public display, and our chance to confront the question, who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
The soldiers have done their best to humiliate him with the crown of thorns, purple sheet and broken-stick scepter. His beard is unkempt, his gaze distracted. Next to the extremely well-dressed Pilate and his equally dapper page, he should be an embarrassment, like a half-naked drunk crashing a formal party. But for some reason, the figure of Christ doesn’t read that way: he looks noble, real, solid. In fact, he seems more real than anything around him. This is the mystery of the painting: there is something about the vision created by this painting that sets Christ apart. When I first saw it, I had the sense that I was seeing, through the body of Christ, into the heart of the heart of reality, the really real world that sits behind the flashy appearances of this one. Returning to have another look, I wanted to figure out why.
I thought I would find the answer in Titian’s atmospheric brushwork. The umber ground shimmers darkly through the yellows, pinks and veiny blues of Christ’s skin, creating an intense, vibrating form for the flesh of the Son of Mary. This is what I remember from my first encounter with the painting. And while it’s true that the painting of Christ’s torso is exquisite, it isn’t quite enough to explain the separate-ness of Christ, his difference from everything else in the painting. Something else is happening, and it took me a while to put my finger on it.
The source of illumination in the painting is a torch, still only sketched out in the upper left-hand corner of the canvas. This illuminates the left side of Christ’s body, creating a shadow on his right. But here is where the trick—the painterly illusion—becomes visible: there is also a deep shadow behind the arm on the left side of the painting which shouldn’t be there—or at least should not be so strong. The shadow only makes sense if it is created by Christ’s shoulder and arm, and must therefore be caused by a source of illumination at his right, which contradicts the otherwise consistent light source in the rest of the canvas. This creates a kind of dark halo around the entire body of Christ, a shadow that he casts on the surrounding action.
It is this halo, or shadow, that accounts for the strange solidity and sense of separation between the figure of Christ and everything else in the painting. Instead of appearing as a figure surrounded by others in three-dimensional space, the shadow suggests that Christ is standing in front of a wall with a painted picture on it. The effect is rather like that of a taxidermy animal standing in front of a painted background in a Natural History Museum diorama. No matter how delicately painted, those backgrounds always look a little funny behind the three-dimensional animal. They look flat because they are flat. The same thing happens in the painting: because Christ’s unnatural shadow implies that the action around him takes place on a flat surface, Pilate looks flat—a pictorial effect that asserts a spiritual judgment.
The artifice of the flattened background is complicated by several discrete elements pushing toward the front of the picture plane. The ornament on Pilate’s headdress with its crisp detail, Pilate’s raised hand reaching out into the viewer’s space, and the hand of the page holding the cord that binds Christ’s hands all push out in front of the figure of Christ. But instead of making the space more believable, this ends up reinforcing the unreality of these things—the details seem to float in space, disembodied from their proper plane of existence.
This spatial arrangement constructs a drama of spiritual development within the experience of looking. At first, the markers of this world’s order jump out, clamoring for attention: the filigree metalwork and gems on Pilates head, his hand embodying worldly power, the page’s hand that holds the cord that binds Christ. Upon longer looking though, these symbols of power begin to detach themselves from the drama behind them. Their illusory position in space becomes overpowering, making it difficult to look at them and causing them to recede from prominence. As the painting settles down, two things happen: Pilate, in his sumptuous clothing and worldly presumption, begins to flatten out and Christ fills up with three-dimensional presence. And it is the presence of Christ that remains. Christ is powerfully there, the only substantial presence on the canvas.
It’s a powerful drama and an invitation to see the world with the eyes of a saint, with what Edith Stein calls “holy objectivity.” Only Jesus is real, and the rest of the world with its pomp and splendor is, well, flat by comparison. This is the virtue of the painting: it is a compelling image of goodness—a goodness that makes visible the emptiness of the evils that surround it. In painting, it is much easier to seduce the eye with flesh and fine things, to make a life of worldly pleasure appear to be the better one. It is far more difficult to show the good for what it is—real—among the non-entities that are the seductions of the flesh.
// Text: 979 words.
// All detail photographs by Brian Prugh. As faithful representations of a two-dimensional object over 100 years old, all images are in the public domain.