Tuesday of Holy Week: Who’s the Victim Here?

[N.B.: A big change is coming to the Blog of the Courtier next week, stay tuned for details.]

Continuing with our series of reflections from the St. Matthew Passion as depicted in art, let us turn to the moment where Pontius Pilate washes his hands. We are all familiar with the event and its symbolism, and using the phrase “I wash my hands” in metaphor reminds us of that moment. Indeed, when speaking in Spanish and describing an event as being a cut-off point or that I am finished dealing with a certain individual or topic, I often make the gesture of wiping my hands and say, “Poncio Pilato.”

St. Matthew tells us that the washing of hands came after several unsuccessful attempts by Pilate to mediate the situation, and after he ignored the warnings of his wife not to condemn Jesus to death. The supporters of Annas and Caiphas, and the crowds, will have none of it. “When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.'” (St. Matthew, 27:24)

Ever since this public, highly symbolic act, there has been endless debate as to Pilate’s intentions, and as to what sort of man he was. The moment has been considered and portrayed from the imagination of numerous artists since the earliest days of Christian art. I would like to draw the attention of the gentle reader to a rather unusual vision of it, created under the influence of an equally unusual late-Gothic genius, which portrays Pilate in a way which today is considered rather unpopular and unsympathetic.

The wonderfully weird Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) created paintings that are often filled with absolutely bizarre details, from grotesque figures to wicked imps, making much of his oeuvre a kind of theological “Where’s Waldo?” Because of his huge inventiveness but small output, he was copied and imitated by a number of artists working in his shadow. Such is the case of the “Christ Before Pilate” panel painting presently in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum, which at the time of its acquisition was thought to be by Bosch himself; it is now generally believed to be by a follower.

Whoever the author of the panel, it is a powerful, disturbing image. Christ is at the center of the picture, in a dirtied, but resigned pose. He is surrounded by guards with hideous, exaggerated features who look something like characters out of “Star Wars” or “The Fifth Element”. To the right, a servant is about to pour the water for Pilate to wash his hands.

This is not a Pilate that most of us would recognize today, thanks to films and more recent artistic interpretations. Here, the painter has portrayed the governor of Judea not as a tough, military man with a stoic bent, dressed in a toga or clad in armor, but rather a reptilian, nearly hairless aesthete, wearing a pretentiously vain, veiled cap. This is a Pilate who has spent his life indoors, trying to slither his way up the social ladder. He is so detached that he does not even dare to look Jesus in the face: instead, Pilate slides his gaze over to his corpulent servant without turning his head and, with a limp gesture, indicates that it is time to pour the water from the great brass pitcher into the matching basin.

In recent years Pilate has become the subject of a kind of ongoing “Apologia pro Vita Sua” among many in the West. Of course, in some of the Eastern Churches he has always been viewed as a saint, but this estimation is questionable at best. In the West, there is an increasingly commonly-held view that Pilate did his best, but was a victim of circumstances, prevented from doing the right thing by political concerns.

How very modern, and how very relativist, this thinking is. It ignores external evidence of Pilate’s deeds from the first-century historians Philo and Josephus, who wrote about Pilate’s cruelty and persecution of the Jews and Samarians. Indeed, Pilate’s heavy-handedness got to the point that he was recalled to Rome to explain himself to the Emperor Tiberias. Some historians believe that, like many a Roman official who fell out of favor, he subsequently went into forced retirement in Gaul, and later committed suicide.

Contemporary thinking about the newly-virtuous Pontius Pilate reverses the ancient military maxim of “Death Before Dishonor”. Pilate participates in ordering the murder of an innocent victim, and yet he is excused in some corners for being a kind of victim himself. It is reminiscent of those who tried to convince fence-sitting Catholics in the last U.S. Presidential election cycle that a vote for Mr. Obama is in fact a Pro-Life vote, rather than a vote for someone so strongly committed to preserving legalized infanticide at any cost, that he would rather shut down the entire government than compromise on funding one of the most evil organizations on the planet.

Rarely are we given the opportunity to directly confront the Devil, in all his naked power to draw us into sin, as he is normally a far more insidious fellow. The test of the good man is how he acts when that direct, confrontational moment comes. Pilate is given that opportunity, accepts an accommodation with evil, and kills a man whom he knows is innocent – supposedly so as to live to fight another day, rather than taking a stand and saying, “No, this is intrinsically evil and I will not do it.” He then washes his hands to try to take the blood away, but like Lady Macbeth, the stain remains.

Let us not be fooled by the rugged, stoic Pilate which has become more commonplace in art, literature, and film. That is a vision embraced by those who see only shades of gray, and no black and white. This 16th century image of him from Princeton, while not in the strictest sense an accurate portrayal of a 1st century Roman, is in fact a far more accurate a portrayal of the corrupted nature of Pilate himself.

“Christ Before Pilate” by a follower of Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1520)
Princeton University Art Museum

Put Some Clothes On

As The New York Times reported yesterday, the city of Barcelona intends to crack down on public nudity, taking a u-turn from a position which the government of that city adopted several years ago. Back in 2004, the city council issued a document encouraging citizens to consider “Expressing Yourself in Nudity”, and pointing out that there was no law on the books to prevent them from going naked in public. This followed a massive nude-in organized by photographer Spencer Tunick, in which thousands of people stripped off around Barcelona’s Plaça d’Espanya.

Although there has not been a rush to undress on the streets of the Catalan capital, in the years since the issuance of this publication celebrating immodesty Barcelona has experienced a significant increase in loutish behavior, which is having a devastating impact on its historic sites and tourist attractions. The open use of drugs is becoming common, as has publicly relieving oneself. The explosion in tagging and other graffiti on historic buildings and museums to shops, businesses, government offices and homes throughout the city is nothing short of epidemic. Despite its status as one of the world’s most beautiful cities, on street level Barcelona has, over the past decade of socialist leadership, come to look more like a war zone and less like a desirable place to live or visit.

This is the result of a rather anarchic way of thinking: a literalism which is subjectively adopted by the left when it suits its purpose. If public nudity is not statutorily prohibited, (presumably because previous generations of city leaders thought it self-evident that this practice was undesirable) then it must be implicitly permissible. Yet to follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, there must be other lewd or destructive activities not expressly forbidden which the citizenry of Barcelona could pursue. What those activities may be I will not dare to suggest, for fear that someone may adopt them.

Realizing that as a result of relativistic, laissez-faire policies on public decency their city today looks more like a rubbish tip than the jewel of the Mediterranean, Barcelona is beginning to rein in such behavior. Banning public nudity is a start, though no doubt there will be those who seek to challenge such bans in the courts as a violation their human rights. While we can agree that everyone has the fundamental right to be a functional idiot, if that is the best level of mental acuity they can achieve, one would hope that when such a case comes before the courts – as it surely will – rational heads will prevail, even if solely on the basis of public hygiene.

To take the anarchic line of reasoning into our own hands however, if the courts decide that the citizenry and visitors to Barcelona have the right to go about starkers, then someone needs to assert their own fundamental human right not to be forced to look at something offensive. One can avoid a museum or film dealing with unpleasant subject matter: a gallery exhibition of blasphemous art can be sidestepped just as easily as a big-budget slasher flick. No one is forced to look at such things, and this is why they are generally found to be permissible by Western legal systems. In the public square however, such as in a commercial exchange or when seeking government services, these interactions cannot be avoided.

Therefore my proposal is that public nudity, if a fundamental right, be regulated through a quarterly permit process. Residents and tourists alike who wish to go about in the altogether in Barcelona will have to be inspected by a panel of aesthetic experts, chosen from the worlds of art and design, media, and health, to determine whether or not they are sufficiently aesthetically pleasing so as to be seen naked. If approved, the applicant will be charged a fee for a 90-day nudity permit. At the conclusion of each quarter, they will be required to return to the panel in order to undergo inspection once again, to determine whether they are still eligible for permitting.

This policy would have several highly beneficial effects on a naked Barcelona. It would deal with the increasing problem of obesity and bad eating habits, by encouraging physical fitness and proper diet. It would add revenue to the local government through the initial permitting and subsequent mandatory quarterly review process. It would increase commerce through multiple sectors of the economy, from the fitness and health industries to the organic and health food sectors, and would also lead to increased tourism and associated revenues from those who not only want to see good-looking naked folk, but also among those whose narcissism would lead them to seek official government recognition of their being attractive. This in turn would yield increased revenues in the form of taxation to city coffers, which would then be redistributed in the form of improved city services.

St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians addressed some of the hedonistic practices of the community at Corinth, which were not uncommon in the pagan world of his day – a world to which we in the West are rapidly returning. He noted that the libertine attitude adopted by some of his flock was going to end up doing them and others harm:

‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything is beneficial.
‘Everything is lawful,’ but not everything builds up.

1 Corinthians 10:23

Taking your clothes off in public is the ultimate way to draw attention to yourself by flouting common decency, and this is why those who engage in such behavior do so: it has nothing to do with being “natural”, and everything to do with being selfish. In the West, there is no natural reason for us to go about naked – particularly in a large, wealthy city like Barcelona. I hope that the good people of my favorite city will use this opportunity to continue the effort to take back their streets from the purveyors of relativism, whose way of thinking has quite literally sullied them.

“The Goddess” by Josep Clarà (1928)
Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona