Northern Netherlandish, Guelders, probably Nijmegen, circa 1490-1500
- Ecce Homo
- 39 1/3 by 59 by 11 4/5 in.; 100 by 150 by 30 cm.
In its original context, this group formed a section of a wing of a monumental altarpiece that included episodes from the Passion of Christ. The Ecce Homo relief would have been situated just above eye level and a scene of the Crucifixion probably occupied the center. Divided into three individual groups, the gestures of the figures are both differentiated and coordinated, creating a rhythm and drama within the scene. The lively interaction between the figures reveals a sculptor with an extraordinary narrative talent. Especially striking is the carving of fine details which is evident in the curls of hair, the costumes, the jewelry and the accessories. Attention is drawn to gemstones, brooches, tassels, and fringes, the chain around Pilate’s neck, the pouch on his belt, the helmet adorned with dragon's wings on the soldier on the far right.
The physiognomy of the characters, with grimacing faces and gaping mouths bearing their teeth and tongues, is typical of North German sculpture. The skill of the sculptor is also immediately evident in his compositional arrangement of the thirteen figures included in the narrative. The figures at the front are nearly carved in the round, giving them an appearance of freedom of action and enhancing the scene’s theatricality.
The Ecce Homo relief was carved around 1490-1500 in oak, the wood most commonly used in Netherlandish and Lower Rhenish sculpture. Probably created by an artist active in the northern part of the former duchy of Guelders and Nijmegen, the sculpture was most likely originally polychromed; the wood remains in an overall excellent state of preservation.
The composition may have been inspired by contemporary prints as German engravings of the late 15th century were distributed throughout Europe almost immediately after they were printed. Prints made by Martin Schongauer in the Upper Rhine valley were especially popular aqs they were used by sculptors as a source for their own compositions. Several details from Schongauer’s Ecce Homo print, both composition and decorative, were adopted by the sculptor of the present relief (fig. 1).
The scene depicts Jesus presented to the crowd, following the betrayal by Pontius Pilate, the Flagellation and Christ receiving the crown of thorns. According to the writing of the Apostle John, “Ecce Homo” are the words Pilate announces as he leaves Jesus to the judgment of the crowd ( John, 19, 4-6): “Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”
Here, Christ is standing at the top of the stairs, to the left of the composition, wearing the crown of thorns, a robe around His shoulders and His hands tied with a rope. He is surrounded by the Priests and Pilate who points to him. The crowd is gathered at the bottom of the stairs, with other soldiers and the Executioner carrying two Instruments of the Passion: the whip and nails for the cross.
This ambitious composition shows the virtuosity of the North German sculptors who were widely influenced by the Netherlands. During the 15th century, the flourishing trade between large Netherlandish and German cities favored artistic exchanges. It was common for German native artists - such as Martin Radeleff, Bernd Notke (1435-1509/17), Henning van der Heide (1487-1520) or Hans Brüggeman (1480-1540) – to be trained with Netherlandish sculptors before establishing their own workshops in Germany.
The originality of the relief contrasts with the more repetitive retables made in the Southern Netherlandish centers of Brussels and Antwerp for European export. Several high-quality altarpieces representative of this school of wood carving still exist in the former duchy of Kleve. Another example from neighboring Guelders, an oak relief with the Dispute between St John the Baptist and the Scribes, now in the Museum of Arnhem, serves as a comparison to the present work. The density of the composition, the elaborate detail and drapery schemes, as well as the figures’ caricature-like physiognomies are similar. Although he remains anonymous, the carver of the Ecce Homo relief demonstrates narrative artistry equal to the celebrated named masters of Northern Netherlandish retable art, including Adriaen von Wesel, Arnt of Kalkar, and Henrik Douverman.
Désiré Paul Raymond Arthur Bouvy, Middeleeuwse Beeldhouwkunst in de Nordelijke Nederlanden, Amsterdam, 1947, S.127-128;
Onzebeeldhouwkunst de late middeleeuwen, exhibition catalogue, Utrecht Museum van Nieuwe Religieuze Kunst, 1954, no. 14;
'The Heilige Sippe', in Country Life, 12 June, 1958, p. 1301;
R. Didier, H. Krohm, Les sculptures médiévales allemands dans les collections belges, exhib. cat. Société Générale de Banque, Brussels, 1977, no. 75;
H. Manske, Der Meister von Osnabrück, Berlin, 1990, p. 718;
Marieke van Vlierden, Hout-en steensculptuur van Museum Catharijneconvent, ca. 1200-1600, Utrecht, 2004, S124-126
We wish to thank Professor Dr. Hartmut Krohm for his research on the present relief