[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.
Princeton University Art Museum