Milan 1465 /1477 – 1504/1544
[Behold the man] c.1503-05
tempera and oil on card? on wood panel
39.3 (h) x 31.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
Small-scale devotional paintings like Solario’s Ecce homo were meant to be experienced by the viewer. Empathy with the suffering Christ featured prominently in the religious life of the late Middle Ages, as evidenced by mystical texts such as The imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. With the invention of printing in the fifteenth century these texts, abridged and translated, became enormously popular as manuals for private devotion. The devotional image in art generally took the form of the single figure of Christ viewed close-up against a dark background. Isolated from a narrative context, the dramatic close-up focused on the interaction between the work of art and the worshipper. The goal was to arouse pity or compassion so that the viewer might vicariously experience Christ’s suffering.
According to tradition ‘Ecce homo’ [Behold the Man] were the words spoken by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate when he presented the scourged Jesus Christ to the public in Jerusalem. The Bergamo Ecce homo panel shares with Solario’s other treatments of the theme an intense realism in which minutely rendered details, like the tears or drops of blood, reinforce the sense of immediacy imparted by the close-up. In the artist’s other, half-length depictions, the soldiers have stripped Christ, placed a robe on his shoulders and a mock sceptre in his hands. There the emphasis is on Christ’s humiliation and physical suffering before being led away to die on the Cross. In the Bergamo picture, however, Solario has omitted the hands and attributes in favour of a bust-length format, retaining the Crown of Thorns backed by a nimbus symbolic of Christ’s divinity. He wears a simple tunic in place of a robe. The result of these changes is a less confrontational, more contemplative image that is unique in Solario’s oeuvre. Focusing on Christ’s head, the Bergamo Ecce homo has an intimate, almost portrait-like quality that humanises the subject. Indeed the patron who commissioned the work for his bedchamber or private chapel might even have held this painting in his hands.
Solario’s concept of a gently resigned Christ was not his own. When the artist painted the Ecce homo at the beginning of the sixteenth century he had just returned to his native Lombardy from a Venetian sojourn. In Milan all eyes were turned to Leonardo da Vinci’s recently completed mural of The Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Solario himself made an accurate copy of the mural in which Leonardo portrayed the apostles each reacting in his own way to Christ’s dramatic announcement that one of them would betray him. At the centre of the composition Christ alone remains calm in the knowledge of his destiny. The human pathos of Solario’s Christ with his soft facial features, inclined head, lowered eyes and sloping shoulders recalls Leonardo’s characterisation.
David Alan Brown
Thomas à Kempis (c.1380–1471), The imitation of Christ [Imitatio Christi] c.1418–1427.
David Alan Brown, Andrea Solario, Milan: Electa, 1987, p. 86 and cat. 19, pp. 142–43.
Damaged in the bombardment of the convent during World War II.