Jesus on Trial
The Sanhedrin, Pilate
The four gospels all narrate the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate. The images in all eras generally hew closely to the gospel narratives, so they should be easy to "read" for anyone familiar with the New Testament.

JESUS BEFORE THE SANHEDRIN

In John's gospel Jesus is arraigned first before Annas and then before his son-in-law, the high priest Caiaphas. While Annas is interrogating him, a temple guard slaps him for what he considers the impertinence in Jesus' answers. We see the slap in this fresco in Croatia. Then Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas. The other gospels omit Annas: upon his arrest, Jesus is taken directly to Caiaphas, who finds him guilty of blasphemy. Then the temple guards and others strike Jesus, spit on him, and subject him to a blind man's buff. Master Morata's Passion Altarpiece has a panel depicting this trial and another panel for the buffeting.

THE RELUCTANCE OF PILATE AND HIS WIFE

In the morning Jesus is taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In Matthew 27:19, his wife sends him a message advising, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream [visum] because of him." Artists and commentators are divided over how to see the wife's intervention. On one side, the Gospel of Nicodemus makes her a sincere intercessor who was so "sorely vexed" when Jesus died on the cross that she could not eat or drink. The Orthodox churches accept the testimony of some early writers that she was baptized into the faith, and they consider her a saint. She has a feast day on October 27 and appears sometimes in Orthodox icons with the name "Claudia Procula" (example).1

But on the other side John Chrysostom suggested in the 4th century that it was the devil who gave her the dream, having figured out that Christ's passsion was a way to liberate his captives in Hell. This is how her plea was interpreted by many commentators in the West.2 In the Bedford Hours, the devil is pictured climbing onto the woman's bed to whisper in her ear, "If your husband has Jesus put to death evil will come upon him and upon you and your friends" (my translation). Many western images, however, ignore both interpretations and either present her counsel in a neutral way (example) or leave it out altogether.

Pilate is also reluctant to condemn Jesus, but the crowd insists, so Pilate washes his hands as a sign that "I am innocent of the blood of this just man" (27:24). The washing is by far the most common element in images of the trial, from paleo-Christian sarcophagi, ivories, and mosaics to medieval and baroque images to modern representations in "Stations of the Cross." In one startling exception Pilate's acquiescence in the crowd's demands is signified by his turning his back on the viewer.

SCOURGED, CROWNED WITH THORNS

Pilate ordered that Jesus be scourged before being crucified. In the art and the English mystery plays he is first despoiled of his garments and tied to a pillar. These procedural details are not found in the gospels nor in the commentaries that I have consulted.3 After the scourging the soldiers put Jesus in a scarlet cloak and crown of thorns and sarcastically hailed him as King of the Jews. This mockery is pictured in this Tintoretto and with a pointed irony in this sarcophagus panel, where the crowning is reimagined as a reverent crowning of a man of true dignity.

The pain and sorrow caused by these torments is represented in medieval and early modern statues intended for Holy Week processions. In some Jesus sits sadly with his hands bound and the crown of thorns on his head. This example is known at its location as El Dios de la Peña, "God of Pain." More often its name involves the word Paciencia (example). In others he stands at the pillar in a pitiable state (example). In (one case) the blows have beaten him to the ground while he is still tied to the pillar.

ECCE HOMO

In John's gospel Pilate orders the scourging in hopes that it will be enough to satisfy the Jews, so when Jesus has been beaten bloody he shows him to the crowd (image). He tells them, "Behold the man" (19:5), which in Latin is Ecce homo, a phrase that art historians apply to portraits of Jesus as he would have appeared to the crowd – with his scarlet cloak and crown of thorns, tied wrists, and often the reed that the soldiers had given him as a mock sceptre and then used to beat his head (example). Paintings of this type served as objects of meditation. Statues, such as this one from Sicily or this one from Mexico, were used in Holy Week processions. El Greco's Disrobing of Christ displaces the scarlet robe detail to a later moment on Golgotha, shortly before the crucifixion.

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-09-02, 2016-12-12, 2021-04-14.

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Jesus addresses the San­he­drin: Church of Sant'Apol­li­na­re Nu­ovo, Ra­ven­na, 6th cen­tu­ry. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)


Most images with Pilate have him wash­ing his hands, but some focus on an ear­lier mo­ment in the trial. This Ital­ian ex­ample is from the 14th cen­tury. (See the de­scrip­tion page.)

MORE IMAGES: JESUS & CAIAPHAS

  • 9th century: Fresco in Müstair, Switzerland.
  • 12th-13th century: a detail in the great Easter Candle Holder in St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.
  • 1874: a stained glass window combining the arraignment and the beating.

MORE IMAGES: JESUS & PILATE

MORE IMAGES: THE SCOURGING

  • 14th century: A relief of the scourging at Orvieto Cathedral.
  • 1344: Detail from Guariento di Arpo's Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece.
  • Late 15th century (?): A fresco in Galicia juxtaposes Christ's passion with St. Sebastian's.
  • 1547-51: An altarpiece panel of the scourging at the pillar.
  • 16th or 17th century: A Mexican santo of Jesus tied to the pillar where he was scourged.
  • 1874: A stained glass window with the flagellation.

MORE IMAGES: ECCE HOMO

NOTES

1 Gospel of Nicodemus, XI, 2. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Pontius Pilate." There is also a brief web page for St. Claudia Procula at the website of the Orthodox Church in America, retrieved 2020-06-04.

2 So John Chrysostom and Nicholas of Lyra, cited in the Glossa Ordinaria, V, 452; Rabanus Maurus, cited in Aquinas's Catena I, 941-42; and The Mirror of Salvation (Labriola, 60).

3 A stage direction in the Chester "Passion" has tunc spoliabunt eum et ad Columnam ligabunt, "then they disrobe him and tie him to the column" (Play XVI:320, Deimling and Matthews, II, 293). In the Wakefield "Scourging" another stage direction has the torturers "strip Jesus and bind him to a pillar" (line 133, Bevington, 558). In York's "Second Trial Before Pilate" the stage directions are built into the dialogue: "Late us gete of his gere [clothing]…Nowe knytte hym in this corde…" (lines 348-51, Davidson, 278.) For the commentaries, I consulted Aquinas's Catena on each of the three gospels and the Glossa Ordinaria on Matthew and Mark.

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