Christ’s head is shown in vivid close up in this little picture, his pale face and brilliant robe stark against the black background. Bright light falling from the left allows us to see every pitiful detail: the thorns thrust into his forehead, the blood dripping down his face and his red-rimmed eyes. A single tear falls from his left eye as he gazes past us and into the future, at the horror of his imminent suffering and death on the Cross.
The painting’s small size means that it was meant to be seen from close to, where it had maximum impact, and its intense emotion was intended to arouse pity. The original owner who commissioned this work for his private chamber might have knelt before it, or even held it his or her hands while meditating on the pain of the Passion (Christ’s torture and death).
This image of Christ is traditionally known as the ‘Ecce Homo’ (‘Behold the Man’) or ‘Christ Crowned with Thorns’. According to the Bible (John 19: 5), before Christ was crucified he was beaten and mocked by the Roman soldiers. They dressed him in a rich robe and put a crown of thorns on his head, saying: ‘Hail, King of the Jews’. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, then showed Christ to the crowd and said, ‘Behold the Man’, as in Christ presented to the People (Ecce Homo) by Correggio.
Small devotional paintings like this were used to aid private prayer, and we know from inventories that both wealthy and more ordinary families owned them. Although empathy with the crucified Christ was an important feature of Renaissance spirituality, this is an unusual painting in many ways. It has a kind of emotional impact which is rare in the work of Cima da Conegliano – it seems that Italian painters and patrons of the late fifteenth century may have preferred images of the dead Christ, such as Bellini’s The Dead Christ supported by Angels, to the Ecce Homo. However, there is one other example of this subject in the National Gallery’s collection, Christ Crowned with Thorns by Pietro Perugino, and Andrea Solario also painted various versions at around the same date.
Cima might have derived the idea from Netherlandish art where such paintings were very popular, particularly in the work of Dirk Bouts, who painted many versions. Perhaps Cima had seen a Netherlandish Ecce Homo in Venice, although the emphasis is subtly different in his version – less on the incarnate deity and more on the man’s acceptance of his suffering and imminent death. Gone are the burnished gold backgrounds and haloes, replaced by dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro effects which hark back to Giovanni Bellini’s later oil paintings, such as his Virgin and Child with Two Saints (Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice).
The painting’s small size means that it was meant to be seen from close to, where it had maximum impact, and its intense emotion was intended to arouse pity. The original owner who commissioned this work for his private chamber might have knelt before it or even have held it his or her hands while meditating on the pain of the Passion.
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